Born Charles Mingus, Jr., April 22, 1922, in Nogales, AZ; died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) January 5, 1979, in Cuernavaca, Mexico; son of Charles Mingus (a postal worker); married first wife, Barbara Jane Parks (divorced); married last wife, Susan Graham Ungaro; children: (first marriage) Charles III. Education: Studied privately with Joe Comfort, Red Callender, Herman Rheinschagen, and Lloyd Reese.

Charles Mingus is universally acknowledged as one of the most influential figures in the world of jazz, and many musicians consider even that expansive description too limited, believing that the great bassist should be ranked among the most important men in all of twentieth-century music. Mingus's accomplishments are certainly remarkable and wide-ranging. As an instrumentalist, he lifted the bass from its traditional role as a timekeeper and harmonic regulator to that of a full participant. His playing was technically brilliant, individualistic, and always deeply expressive. As a composer, he produced outstanding works of all types, from earthy, blues-oriented tunes to sophisticated orchestral numbers to free-form pieces. In performance and in composition, he demonstrated a deep understanding of virtually every style of jazz that existed during his lifetime. His talent for assembling groups and bringing out the best in both green and experienced players was legendary, and his influence continues to be profoundly felt years after his death.

Music was always considered important in the Mingus family. Growing up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Mingus was exposed to classical music through the piano and violin lessons of his two older sisters. Another early influence--one that remained with him throughout his life--was the call-and-response singing practiced in the Holiness Church devoutly attended by his stepmother. Mingus's parents bought him a trombone when he was eight years old, but he felt uncomfortable with the instrument and soon took up the cello, which he loved. He switched to the double bass--the instrument on which he would build his reputation--in high school, where his fellow orchestra members included future jazz stars Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton. During his late teens Mingus augmented his classroom studies with private lessons; his tutors included jazzmen Joe Comfort and Red Callender, as well as a former bassist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Herman Rheinschagen. He also studied composition with Lloyd Reese, and at least two of the songs he wrote at this time--"What Love," from 1939, and "Half-Mast Inhibitions," from 1940--would be recorded some twenty years later.

Mingus's activity in the jazz scenes of Los Angeles and San Francisco began even before he graduated from high school. In 1940 he replaced his former teacher, Red Callender, in Lee Young's band; the following year he joined Louis Armstrong's organization, where he remained until 1943. As "Baron Mingus" he led various ensembles of his own, but it was as a member of Lionel Hampton's band that he began to revolutionize jazz bass playing with his highly charged, lightning-fast solos. Economic pressures prompted Mingus to briefly drop music for a job with the U.S. Postal Service until 1950, when vibraphonist Red Norvo invited him to be part of a trio that would also include guitarist Tal Farlow. The Red Norvo trio attracted national attention for introducing the West Coast's "cool jazz" to a wide audience.

In 1951 Mingus relocated to New York City, a hothouse of jazz creativity where he worked regularly with such musicians as Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. In 1953 he joined the band of his idol, Duke Ellington, but when a personality clash between Mingus and another bandmember led to a violent altercation, Mingus became one of the few musicians ever fired by Ellington. During the mid-1950s Mingus began to mature as a composer, modifying conventional forms by adding the startling rhythmic contrasts that would become his trademark. His aim was always to expand the horizons of jazz, and, to this end, he frequently experimented with atonality and dissonance. Some listeners found his music disturbing, but to others it was challenging and stimulating. As swing gave way to bop, and bop eventually gave way to avant-garde jazz, Mingus was able to keep pace with every new development, though he always maintained his individuality and avoided identification with any one school.

Mingus's energy led him to engage in many activities during the late 1950s, in addition to composing and upholding his reputation as one of the greatest soloists of all time. Angered by the unfair treatment meted out to musicians by major recording labels, Mingus established Debut Records in 1952. From 1953 to 1955, Mingus gave written contributions to the Jazz Composers Workshop, but in 1955 he founded his own workshop, based on his belief that written notation was not equal to his composing style. In his Jazz Workshop, Mingus carefully dictated each line of a composition to the appropriate player, thereby ensuring that all of his intended nuances were fully understood. His unique talent for putting together combos and bringing out the best in each player came to the fore during that era. J. J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Thad Jones were but a few of the musicians who flourished under his direction. By the end of the decade, his continuing frustrations with the business side of the music industry spurred him to found the short-lived Jazz Artists Guild and act as a concert organizer.

During the early 1960s Mingus experimented with free-form jazz and also wrote some of his most richly textured, rhythmically complex music, including such pieces as "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" and the album Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. His influence on the young bass players of the day was incalculable, but, ironically, he gave up playing bass at this time. Instead he played piano, "on which he resembled a watery Thelonious Monk," according to jazz critic Whitney Balliet in his book Such Sweet Thunder. Mingus's behavior became increasingly erratic; frequently he ignored contracts, walked offstage early, or spent more time haranguing audiences about their ignorance and inattention than he did playing. Band members were routinely upbraided--even physically attacked--onstage for making mistakes or failing to show the proper attitude. Grappling with deep-seated psychological problems, Mingus dropped out of the music scene in the mid-1960s to concentrate on writing an autobiography. In 1968 he was evicted from his New York City apartment, and much of his written music was lost in that episode.

When Mingus finally returned to music--and the bass--in June, 1969, he was motivated mainly by economic pressures. To his surprise he found himself accorded the status of an elder statesman. His stream-of-consciousness autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, was published in 1971, the same year he received a Guggenheim fellowship for composition. He became a part-time instructor at the State University of New York in Buffalo; wrote music for films; collaborated with singer Joni Mitchell on her tribute recording Mingus; and traveled extensively with his workshop. In 1974 Mingus organized what Leroy Ostransky, author of Understanding Jazz, deemed "the greatest jam session since the expression was coined," which was recorded and released as Mingus at Carnegie Hall. In 1977 he became seriously ill, and in 1979 Charles Mingus died at the age of 56.

Still, Mingus's music lived on. Shortly after his death, his widow formed the Mingus Dynasty group--with an ever-changing roster that often included former Mingus sidemen--in order to keep his works alive. In 1989, ten years after his death, a world premier was held at Lincoln Center in New York City for his composition "Epitaph," a masterwork that was discovered after his death. "It is the longest and most richly textured of jazz compositions," assessed Time contributor John Elson, adding that the piece was "a suite of 18 sections comprising nearly 4,000 bars of music, with a performance time of more than two hours." Composer Gunther Schuller, who conducted the 31-member ensemble that played "Epitaph," described the work to Elson as "a musical summary of one of the great jazz composers of the century, from the sweet and gentle Mingus to the angry Mingus."

Mingus fans will likely continue the debate over which of his many accomplishments was the greatest. Martin Williams, author of The Jazz Tradition, stated unequivocally that "Mingus the bassist ... made the most important and durable contribution to jazz because he made people think of the instrument in a new way and because he was a virtuoso ... outstanding enough to be numbered among the great soloists regardless of instrument." Yet few would argue with Understanding Jazz author Ostransky, who concluded that when Mingus's playing, his compositions, his leadership, and his continuing influence are all taken into account, "the classification for Charlie Mingus is catalyst."

by Joan Goldsworthy

Charles Mingus's Career

Jazz bassist, composer, and pianist, 1940-77. Bassist with Lee Young, 1940-41, Louis Armstrong, 1941-43, and Lionel Hampton, late 1940s; member of Red Norvo trio, 1950-51; played in and led various ensembles with Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and others. Established and performed with Jazz Workshop; founder of Jazz Artists Guild, Debut Records, and Charles Mingus Records. Instructor at State University of New York in Buffalo. Author of Beneath the Underdog (autobiography), Knopf, 1971.

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