Charles Mingus - Biography

By J Poet

Charles Mingus was a brilliant composer and bandleader, an improviser of rare genius, and one of the most important figures in 20th Century jazz. He moved the bass from the rhythm section to the front of the band and created music that combined New Orleans jazz, swing, be bop, post bop, Latin music, modern classical music, free jazz and avant-garde impulses into unforgettable and powerful compositions. He was also a fine pianist and a driven, sometimes self destructive, musician who continually fought against racism and the duplicity of the music business. He was just getting some mainstream recognition when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1977. He died in 1979, but his music will live forever.


Charles Mingus was born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona. His mother was Chinese and English, his father African American and Swedish. After his father left the Army, the family settled in Watts (Los Angeles.) Mrs. Mingus only listened to gospel music, but Charles loved jazz, especially the music of Duke Ellington, who was his lifelong idol and role model. He sang in his church choir and absorbed classical music listening to the piano and violin lessons his older sisters took. Mingus took trombone and cello lessons as a boy, changing to bass in high school. Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton played with him in his high school band, where he was already composing challenging music. He later recorded some of his early tunes as Pre-Bird Mingus (1961 EmArcy, 1999 Polygram.) Outside the classroom he studied with Joe Comfort, Red Callender, and Herman Rheinschagen, a former bassist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.


Mingus played professionally while still in high school. When he was 18, he was in Lee Young's LA based band, toured with Louis Armstrong for a few years, and he led his own combos. In the late 40s, he was part of Lionel Hampton's big band where his faster than light solos first moved the bass to the front of the stage. Hampton performed and recorded several Mingus compositions. In 1950, vibe player Red Norvo hired him for The Red Norvo Trio, with Tal Farlow on guitar. The Norvo group introduced the California cool jazz sound to a national audience. The Red Norvo Trio with Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus (1957 Savoy, 1976 Arista) collects some of Mingus’s first recordings.


In 1951, Mingus moved to New York City and played dates with Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. Jazz at Massey Hall (2002 Fantasy OJC) is a live date featuring Gillespie, Parker, Powell, Mingus, and Max Roach. It’s still considered one of the best live jazz discs ever made. Around this time, Mingus became known for his mercurial temper; his angry outbursts often cost him jobs. In 1953 he joined Duke Ellington’s band, but got fired after an on stage punch out with Juan Tizol. He was the only band member the even-tempered Ellington ever let go.


In 1952, Mingus started Debut Records with Max Roach, to record his music without commercial constraints. The Complete Debut Recordings (1997 Debut) is a 12 CD collection of his early work as a sideman and leader. From 1953 to 1955, Mingus played with and wrote for the Jazz Composers Workshop, quitting to start his own Jazz Workshop to explore the possibilities of free improvisation. He nurtured and mentored dozens of players who went on to have their own careers including J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Thad Jones, Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Charles McPherson, and Horace Parlan. He also started the Jazz Artists Guild to produce concerts, but the venture soon fell apart.


In the decade between 1956 and 1966 Mingus was at his peak as a composer and bandleader, and made more than 30 albums for Atlantic, Candid, Columbia, Impulse, Blue Note, and other labels. Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956 Atlantic) included the extended improvisation of the title piece and featured Mal Waldron, Jackie McLean, and J. R. Monterose. The Clown (1957 Atlantic) featured drummer Dannie Richmond, who played with Mingus until he died, and stretched the boundaries of jazz to their outer limits. Other late 50s albums include Mingus Three (1957 Jubilee), East Coasting (1957 Bethlehem), A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry (1957 Bethlehem), Blues & Roots (1959 Atlantic), Mingus Ah Um (1959 Columbia), Mingus Dynasty (1959 Columbia) and Wonderland (1959 United Artists.)


After seeing Ornette Coleman's first free jazz excursions at The Five Spot, Mingus created a quartet with Richmond, Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy, possibly his greatest small combo. They only made one album, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (1960 Candid.) It featured the classics “Fork Forms #1,” the bitterly humorous “Original Faubus Fables” and “All the Things You Could Be by Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother.” It stands as one of the greatest jazz records ever made. Reincarnation of a Love Bird (1960 Candid), Tonight at Noon (1961, Atlantic), Oh Yeah (1962, Atlantic) and Tijuana Moods (1962 RCA) broke more new ground, leading up to another masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963, Impulse.) The orchestrations on Black Saint, a ballet suite according to Mingus, overwhelmed listeners with their complexity and featured some of the best bass work Mingus ever recorded. It was one of the first jazz albums to use overdubbing to add impact to the music.


Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963 Impulse) is a “greatest hits’ album, with new arrangements of seminal works featuring Eric Dolphy. Mingus Plays Piano (1963 Impulse!) switched gears to present a solo piano outing of improvised tunes that blended jazz and classical music. In 1964, the Mingus sextet with Richmond, Jaki Byard, Dolphy, Johnny Coles, and Clifford Jordan toured Europe and the States and recorded Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Vol. 1 (1964 Ulysse Musique), Charles Mingus Live In Oslo 1964 Featuring Eric Dolphy (1964 Jazz Up), Charles Mingus Sextet Live In Stockholm 1964 (1964 Royal Jazz), Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy at Cornell University March 18 1964 (2007, Blue Note) Mingus In Europe (1964 Enja) and Mingus In Stuttgart, April 28, 1964 (2000 Unique Jazz.)


After the tour, Mingus stopped performing to write his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. He also fought with his landlord, composed prolifically, entered psychotherapy and seldom slept through the night. In 1968, he was acrimoniously evicted from his long time apartment and most of his compositions were lost in the move to a new living space.


In 1971, Mingus spent a semester teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo and published his autobiography. He returned to live gigs and recording, citing financial hardships. Fantasy records bought his Debut catalogue, which helped, as did the reception of Reincarnation of a Lovebird (1970 Prestige) and the classic Let My Children Hear Music (1970 Columbia) an orchestral suite that Mingus considers the best album he ever made. He celebrated with the live big band recording Charles Mingus and Friends in Concert (1972 Columbia) featuring Gerry Mulligan, Gene Ammons, Lee Konitz, Randy Weston, James Moody, Milt Hinton, Bill Cosby, and Jon Faddis. He introduced new classics like "E's Flat, Ah's Flat Too" and "Little Royal Suite."


In 1973, Mingus signed up young players including Jack Walrath, Don Pullen, and George Adams and made another batch of strong albums including Mingus Moves (1973 Atlantic), Passions of a Man (1973  Atlantic), Mingus At Carnegie Hall (1974 Atlantic), Changes One (1974 Atlantic), Changes Two (1974 Atlantic), Cumbia & Jazz Fusion (1977 Atlantic) an ambitious suite that combined the rhythms of Columbia’s cumbia with his own expansive orchestrations and Three or Four Shades of Blues (1977 Atlantic) which includes John Scofield on electric guitar. Later that year, Mingus learned he had Lou Gehrig's disease; by 1978 he could no longer play bass. From his wheelchair he conducted the orchestras on Something Like a Bird (1978 Atlantic) and Me, Myself an Eye (1978 Atlantic.) His last collaboration was on Mingus (1979 Asylum,) a Joni Mitchell album that found the singer putting words to melodies Mingus had composed for her. He died before the album was completed.

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