Charles Mingus is renowned for his immeasurable influence on jazz as a bassist, pianist and composer. He is today recognised as one of the greatest musicians in jazz history. Mingus played everything from bebop to free jazz; his work was influenced by classical music, swing, blues, gospel and Duke Ellington's bebop. He has been described as "a black man in the United States ... angry every day," Mingus used his music as a voice against racism and the black slave trade in America.
Charles Mingus was born on a US military base in Nogales, Arizona, and grew up in the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles, a neighborhood severely affected by the violent riots and racial discrimination of the summer of 1965. Mingus discovered classical music through his brothers and sisters, and blues, gospel and preacher culture from his parents, whom he regularly accompanied to the church. Mingus was more influenced by Duke Ellington's jazz, which he discovered on the radio at the age of eight. He studied the cello and the trombone and then began to learn the double bass following the advice of a friend, as it was a "black instrument". He trained with Red Callender and Herman Rheinshagen before starting to work with Buddy Collette, Lee Young, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Lionel Hampton, Billy Taylor, Red Norvo, Tatum Art, Stan Getz, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. In 1953 he founded his own label, Debut, with which he produced several recordings alongside Parker, Powell, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach. Mingus then began to compose; his work was deeply influenced by gospel and classical music. He was less interested in the virtuosity that fascinated his contemporaries and instead chose to explore improvisation and collective improvisation, most notably in his album Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956). Many regard this album as the first step on the road to what was later termed "free jazz"; it is a key album in Mingus’ career and the history of jazz. Mingus went on to abandon tonal and melodic jazz, instead exploring the energetic and percussive sounds of instruments.
Mingus had railed against racism since childhood, even leaving his college band following a racist incident involving the conductor. In 1953 he joined Duke Ellington's prestigious band, but was also forced to leave it shortly afterwards following an on stage altercation with Juan Tizol, provoked by a racist remark. Mingus once again demonstrated his anger against the treatment of blacks in America in 1960 at the Newport Festival, where he organized a "Rebel Festival" to protest the conditions imposed by the Newport organizers. Max Roach, Jo Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Ornette Coleman joined him. While many jazz musicians chose to go to Europe because of this discrimination, Mingus remained in the United States, using his music to protest and denounce the status quo.
Mingus engaged in a number of musical collaborations in the 60s with Eric Dolphy and Fats Navarro, before entirely disappearing from the jazz scene due to personal difficulties. In 1971, he published an autobiography Beneath the Underdog, and returned to the world of jazz, playing both bass and piano, with Horace Parlan, Roland Hanna, Don Pullen and Jaki Byard. In 1978, Mingus was invited to the White House where he was personally received by President Jimmy Carter. This celebration came only a few months before his death in Cuernavaca in January 1979, following a period of exhaustion and paralysis due to ALS (an illness Lou Gehrig also suffered from), which prevented him from practicing his instrument. He did not however stop composing, notably creating a musical adaptation of TS Elliot’s Four Quartets with Joni Mitchell.
Six Landmark Dates in the Life of Charles Mingus
1930 Heard Duke Ellington's work for the first time
1939 Composed his first orchestral work, Half-Mast Inhibition.
1953 Founded his own label, Debut
1955 Created the first "Jazz Workshop" to experiment with his compositions and improvisations
1956 Released Pithecanthropus Erectus, a key album in the evolution of free jazz
1971 Published his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog
Six Key Works by Charles Mingus
1954-55 - Jazz Composers Workshop
1956 - Pithecanthropus Erectus
1957 - The Clown
1959 - Mingus Ah Um
1963 - The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady
1972 - Let My Children Hear Music