Charles Mingus was born April 22, 1922 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Mingus was prone to depression. He tended to have brief periods of extreme creative activity, intermixed with fairly long periods of greatly decreased output.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 January 5, 1979 aged 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had traveled for treatment and convalescence. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.
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 similarly self-destructive) bassist and composer.