Charles Mingus

From New World Encyclopedia

Charles Mingus
Also known as Charlie Mingus
Born April 22 1922
Origin Nogales, Arizona, USA
Died January 5 1979
Genre(s) Jazz
Instrument(s) Double bass, piano
Years active 1943–1979
Label(s) Debut, Impulse!, Candid, Atlantic, Blue Note, Mercury, Columbia

Charles Mingus (April 22 1922 – January 5 1979), also known as Charlie Mingus, was an American jazz bassist, composer, bandleader, and occasional pianist. He was also known for his activism against racial injustice. Nearly as well known as his ambitious music was Mingus' often fearsome temperament, which earned him the nickname "The Angry Man of Jazz." His refusal to compromise his musical integrity led to many onstage explosions, though it has been argued that his temper also grew from a need to vent frustration. Ironically, a perfect show could irritate him by closing this outlet.


Early life and career

Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona, but was raised largely in the Watts area of Los Angeles, California. His mother's paternal heritage was Chinese, while historical records indicate that his father was the illegitimate offspring of a mulatto farmhand and his employer's white granddaughter.[1]

His mother allowed only church-related music in their home, but Mingus developed an early love for jazz, especially Ellington's music. He studied trombone, and later cello. Much of the cello technique he learned was applicable to double bass when he took up the instrument in high school.

Even in his teen years, Mingus was writing quite advanced pieces; many are similar to Third Stream Jazz. A number of them were recorded in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller, and released as Pre-Bird, referring to Charlie "Bird" Parker.

Bass Prodigy

Mingus gained a reputation as something of a bass prodigy. He toured with Louis Armstrong in 1943, then played with Lionel Hampton's band in the late 1940s; Hampton performed and recorded a few of Mingus's pieces. A popular trio of Mingus, Red Norvo and Tal Farlow in 1950 and 1951 received considerable acclaim. Mingus was briefly a member of Ellington's band in the early 1950s, and Mingus's notorious temper reportedly led to his being the only musician personally fired by Ellington (although there are reports that Sidney Bechet was another victim).

Also in the early 1950s, before attaining commercial recognition as a bandleader, he played a number of live bookings with Charlie Parker, whose compositions and improvisations greatly inspired and influenced Mingus. Mingus considered Parker the greatest genius and innovator in jazz history, but he had a love-hate relationship with Parker's legacy. Mingus blamed the Parker mythology for a derivative crop of pretenders to Parker's throne. He was also conflicted and sometimes disgusted by Parker's self-destructive habits and the romanticized lure of drug addiction they offered to other jazz musicians. In response to the many sax players who imitated Parker, Mingus titled a song, "If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats."

Recording Background

In 1952, Mingus co-founded Debut Records with Max Roach, in order to conduct his recording career as he saw fit. After bassist Oscar Pettiford broke his arm playing baseball, Mingus stepped in to replace him at the famed May 15, 1953 concert at Massey Hall. He joined Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach in what was to be the last recorded meeting of the two lead instrumentalists. After the event, Mingus chose to overdub his barely-audible bass part. The two 10" albums of the Massey Hall concert (one featured the trio of Powell, Mingus and Roach) were among Debut Records' earliest releases. Mingus may have objected to the way the major record companies treated musicians, but Gillespie once commented that he did not receive any royalties "for years and years" for his Massey Hall appearance. The records though, are often regarded as among the finest live jazz recordings.

In 1955, Mingus was involved in a notorious incident while playing a club date billed as a "reunion" with Parker, Powell, and Roach. Powell, who had suffered from alcoholism and mental illness for years (potentially exacerbated by a severe police beating and electroshock treatments), had to be helped from the stage, unable to play or speak coherently. As Powell's incapacitation became apparent, Parker stood in one spot at a microphone, chanting "Bud Powell...Bud Powell..." as if beseeching Powell's return. Allegedly, Parker continued this incantation for several minutes after Powell's departure, to his own amusement and Mingus' exasperation. Mingus took another mic and announced to the crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen, please don't associate me with any of this. This is not jazz. These are sick people." Roughly a week later, Parker died of complications of years of drug abuse.

Pithecanthropus Erectus

Mingus had already recorded about ten albums as a bandleader, but 1956 was a breakthrough year, with the release of Pithecanthropus Erectus, arguably his first major work as both a bandleader and composer. Like Ellington, Mingus wrote songs with specific musicians in mind, and his band for Erectus included adventurous, though distinctly blues-oriented musicians, especially saxophonist Jackie McLean and piano player Mal Waldron. The title song is a ten minute tone poem, depicting the rise of man from his hominid roots (Pithecanthropus erectus) to an eventual downfall. A section of the piece was improvised free of structure or theme.

Another album, The Clown (1957 on Atlantic Records), with an improvised story on the title track by humorist Jean Shepherd, was the first to feature drummer Dannie Richmond. Richmond would be his drummer until Mingus died twenty years later. They formed one of the most impressive and versatile rhythm sections in jazz. Both were accomplished performers seeking to stretch the boundaries of their music while staying true to its roots. When joined by pianist Jaki Byard, they were dubbed "The Almighty Three."

The following decade is widely regarded as Mingus's most productive and fertile period. Impressive new compositions and albums appeared at an astonishing rate: some thirty records in ten years, for a number of record labels (Debut, Candid, Impulse Records and others), a pace perhaps unmatched by any musician or group excepting Ellington.

Mingus often worked with a mid-sized ensemble (around eight–ten members) of rotating musicians known as the Jazz Workshop. Mingus broke new ground, constantly demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot. Those tapped to join the Workshop (or Sweatshops as they were colorfully dubbed by the musicians) were skilled musicians yearning for a taste of the big time. Mingus shaped these promising novices into a cohesive improvisational machine that in many ways anticipated free jazz. Some musicians dubbed the workshop a "university" for jazz.

Jazz Workshop members included:

  • Pepper Adams
  • Jaki Byard
  • Eric Dolphy
  • Booker Ervin
  • Roland Kirk
  • Jimmy Knepper
  • John Handy
  • Jackie McLean
  • Charles McPherson
  • Horace Parlan

Only one misstep occurred in this era: 1962's Town Hall Concert. An ambitious program, it was unfortunately plagued with troubles from its inception.[2] Mingus's vision was finally realized in 1989, see Epitaph (Mingus).

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus

Mingus witnessed Ornette Coleman's legendary—and controversial—1960 appearances at New York City's Five Spot jazz club. Though he initially expressed rather mixed feelings for Coleman's innovative music: "...if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something...Most of the time they use their fingers on the saxophone and they don't even know what's going to come out. They're experimenting." Mingus was in fact a prime influence of the early free jazz era. He formed a quartet with Richmond, trumpeter Ted Curson and saxophonist Eric Dolphy. This ensemble featured the same instruments as Coleman's quartet, and is often regarded as Mingus rising to the challenging new standard established by Coleman. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, the quartet's sole album, is frequently included among the finest in Mingus's catalogue.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady

In 1963, Mingus released The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a sprawling, multi-section masterpiece, described as "one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history."[3] The album was also unique in that Mingus asked his psychotherapist to provide notes for the record.

The year also saw the release of an unaccompanied album Mingus Plays Piano. His piano technique, though capable and expressive, was somewhat unrefined when compared to Herbie Hancock or other contemporary jazz pianists, but the album is still generally well regarded. A few pieces were entirely improvised and drew on classical music as much as jazz, preceding Keith Jarrett's landmark The Köln Concert in those respects by some 12 years.

In 1964, Mingus put together one of his best-known groups, a sextet including Dannie Richmond, Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Johnny Coles, and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. The group was recorded frequently during its short existence; Coles fell ill during a European tour. On June 28, 1964 Dolphy died while in Berlin.


Mingus's pace slowed somewhat in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974, he formed a quintet with Richmond, pianist Don Pullen, trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxophonist George Adams. They recorded two well-received albums, "Changes One" and "Changes Two."

Cumbia and Jazz Fusion in 1976 sought to blend Colombian music (the "Cumbia" of the title) with more traditional jazz forms.

In May 1971, Mingus published his autobigraphy, Beneath the Underdog. It was like begining a new life for him. Friends found it silly or demeaning and many names were changed to conceal real identities. However, at the time of the Newport Jazz Festival, where he appeared that year, it received huge press. It was only partly about his music and a lot to do with his feelings and attitudes about life.

Later career and death

By the mid-1970s, Mingus was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease), a wastage of the musculature. His once formidable bass technique suffered, until he could no longer play the instrument. He continued composing, however, and supervised a number of recordings before his death.

Mingus died aged 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had traveled for treatment and convalescence. He had exhausted, both Western and alternative medicines including mystical treatments. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River. He had felt that that woukld be far enough away from the club owners and promoters messing with his spirit in New York as he had hated the circus that surrounded other jazz funerals, like Bird's. He didn't want any part of that.

At the time of his death, Mingus had been recording an album with singer Joni Mitchell, which included vocal versions of some of his songs (including "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat") among Mitchell originals and short, spoken word duets and home recordings of Mitchell and Mingus. To show how important his influence was on the jazz world, this album also featured Jaco Pastorius, another massively influential (and self-destructive) bassist and composer. Some heard however, the death knell of Joni's commercial career and indeed she was never really popular again.

In Rolling Stone, Ben Sidran wrote; "Mingus' reputation in the music world is based not only on his musical virtuosity but also on his unrelenting criticism of whites. he hasn't simply been voluble on the subject; he has been volcanic. To think now, so late in Mingus' life, his music will be heard in hundreds of thousands of homes interpreted by a leading white female pop singer is perhaps the ultimate twist in an extremely stormy career...He has a volatile personal style that often seemed more noteworthy than the music itself."


Epitaph is considered by many to be the masterwork of Charles Mingus. It is a composition which is more than 4,000 measures long, requires two hours to perform and was only completely discovered during the cataloguing process after his death by musicologist Andrew Homzy. With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, the score and instrumental parts were copied, and the piece itself was premiered by a 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller. This concert was produced by Mingus's widow, Sue Graham Mingus, at Alice Tully Hall on June 3, 1989, ten years after his death. Epitaph is one of the longest jazz pieces ever written.

The music after his death

The Mingus Big Band

The music of Charles Mingus is currently being performed and reinterpreted by the Mingus Big Band, which plays every Tuesday and Thursday in New York City, and often tours the rest of the United States and Europe. Elvis Costello has written lyrics for a few Mingus pieces and has sung them in performances and recordings with the Mingus Big Band. Other tribute bands are also active around the US, including Mingus Amungus in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Cover versions

Considering the number of compositions that Charles Mingus has written, his works have not been recorded as often as comparable jazz composers. Of all his works, his elegant elegy for Lester Young, "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" (from Mingus Ah Um) has probably had the most recordings. Besides recordings from the expected jazz artists, the song has also been recorded by musicians as disparate as Jeff Beck, Andy Summers, Eugene Chadbourne, and Bert Jansch and John Renbourn with and without Pentangle. Joni Mitchell sang a version with lyrics that she wrote for the song. Elvis Costello has recorded "Hora Decubitus" (from Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus) on "My Flame Burns Blue" (2006). "Better Git It in Your Soul" was covered by Davey Graham on his album "Folk, Blues, and Beyond." Trumpeter Ron Miles performs a version of "Pithecanthropus Erectus" on his EP "Witness." New York Ska Jazz Ensemble has done a cover of Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song," as have Pentangle and others.

Personality and temper

As respected as Mingus was for his musical talents, he was often feared for his sometimes violent onstage temper, which was at times directed at members of his band, and other times aimed at the audience. He was physically large, prone to obesity (especially in his later years), and was by all accounts often intimidating and frightening when expressing anger or displeasure.

When confronted with a nightclub audience talking and clinking ice in their glasses while he performed, Mingus stopped his band and loudly chastised the audience, stating "Isaac Stern doesn't have to put up with this shit."[4] He once played a prank on a similar group of nightclub chatterers by silencing his band for several seconds, allowing the loud audience members to be clearly heard, then continuing as the rest of the audience snickered at the oblivious "soloists."

Guitarist and singer Jackie Paris was a first-hand witness to Mingus's irascibility. Paris recalls his time in the Jazz Workshop: "He chased everybody off the stand except [drummer] Paul Motian and me... The three of us just wailed on the blues for about an hour and a half before he called the other cats back."[5]

While onstage at a memorial concert in Philadelphia, he reportedly attempted to crush his pianist's hands with the instrument's keyboard cover, then punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth.

Mingus's onstage destruction of an $800 bass prompted British rockers The Animals—avid fans who witnessed Mingus's characteristic explosion at a London show—to emulate the outburst, starting a trend of rampant onstage destruction of musical equipment in "rock theater" popularized by Jimi Hendrix and The Who, continuing to this day.

Awards and honors

In 1995, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor.

In 1997, he was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.


Mingus is highly ranked among the composers and performers of jazz, and he recorded many highly regarded albums. Dozens of musicians passed through his bands and later went on to impressive careers. His songs—though melodic and distinctive—are not often recorded by later musicians, in part because of their unconventional nature. Mingus was also influential and creative as a bandleader, recruiting talented and sometimes little-known artists whom he assembled into unconventional and revealing configurations.

Most of Mingus's music retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third Stream Jazz and free jazz. Yet, Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz. Mingus focused on collective improvisation, similar to the old New Orleans Jazz parades, paying particular attention to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. In creating his bands, Mingus looked not only at the skills of the available musicians, but also their personalities. He strove to create unique music to be played by unique musicians.

The bass is said to be the heartbeat of music. Whilst the other instruments are extensions of other parts of the body, the bass represents the human heart, physically and spiritually. The bass, especially in conjunction with the drums, in a jazz band, is creating Time. Time that is the basis for the music to exist within. The rhythm section represents the most basic rhythm, the rhythm of life. This is the foundation for the music to play upon. The big sound of Mingus can be heard to be doing that.

Due to his brilliant writing for mid-size ensembles—and his catering to and emphasizing the strengths of the musicians in his groups—Mingus is often considered the heir apparent to Duke Ellington, for whom he expressed unqualified admiration.

Partial discography

Major works include:

  • Jazzical Moods (1954)
  • Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956, Atlantic)
  • The Clown (1957, Atlantic)
  • Tijuana Moods (1957)
  • New Tijuana Moods (1957)
  • The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus (1957)
  • Blues & Roots (1959, Atlantic)
  • Mingus Ah Um (1959, Columbia)
  • Mingus Dynasty (1959, Columbia)
  • Pre Bird (1960, Mercury)
  • Mingus at Antibes (1960, Atlantic)
  • Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (1960, Candid)
  • Oh Yeah (1962, Atlantic)
  • The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963, Impulse)
  • Mingus Plays Piano (1963, Impulse)
  • Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963, Impulse)
  • Revenge! (live 1964 performance with Eric Dolphy, 32 Jazz; previously issued by Prestige as The Great Paris Concert)
  • Let My Children Hear Music (1972, Columbia)
  • Changes One (1974, Atlantic)
  • Changes Two (1974, Atlantic)
  • Cumbia & Jazz Fusion (1976, Atlantic)
  • Three or Four Shades of Blue (1977)
  • Me, Myself An Eye (1979, his final recordings)
  • Epitaph (1990, Columbia, posthumous)


  • In 1959, Mingus provided the music for John Cassavetes's gritty New York City film, Shadows.
  • In 1968, Thomas Reichman directed the documentary Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968.
  • In 1991, Ray Davies produced a documentary entitled Weird Nightmare. It contains footage of Mingus and interviews with artists making Hal Willner's tribute album of the same name, including Elvis Costello, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Vernon Reid.
  • Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog is a 78 minute long documentary film on Charles Mingus directed by Don McGlynn and released in 1998.


  1. Myself When I Am Real, New York Times, 2008. Retrieved February 21, 2008.
  2. [1], Village Voice, 2008. Retrieved February 21, 2008.
  3. The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Macrovision Corporation, 2008. Retrieved February 21, 2008.
  4. RÉNE MARIE: Jump, and the net will appear, Bruce Crowther, 2007. Retrieved February 21, 2008.
  5. Paris When He Sizzles, Retrieved February 21, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Santoro, Gene. Myself When I Am Real: The Life and Music of Charles Mingus. Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0195147111
  • Priestley, Brian. Mingus: A Critical Biography. Da Capo Press, 1984. ISBN 0306802171
  • Mingus, Sue Graham. Tonight At Noon: A Love Story. Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN 0306812207
  • Mingus, Charles. Charles Mingus - More Than a Fake Book. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1991. ISBN 0793509009
  • Coleman, Janet; Al Young. Mingus/Mingus: Two Memoirs. Limelight Editions, 2004. ISBN 0879101490

External links

All links retrieved December 4, 2023.


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