Charles Mingus

African-American jazz musician Charles Mingus earned renown for his distinctive performances on bass and innovative work as a composer.


Jazz great Charles Mingus was born on April 22, 1922, in Nogales, Arizona, and grew up in Los Angeles. The renowned bassist performed with such legends as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and earned acclaim for his work as a bandleader and recording artist. After struggling with depression, Mingus made a successful comeback in the 1970s. He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on January 5, 1979.

Early Life and Background

Charles Mingus Jr. was born on April 22, 1922, in Nogales, Arizona. He was the third child of Army Sgt. Charles Sr., who came from African and Swedish ancestry, and Harriet, who had Chinese and African-American parents.

Mingus's mother died shortly after his birth, when the family was living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mingus and his two older sisters, Vivian and Grace, were raised by their stepmother, Mamie.

Interested in music as a child, Mingus initially picked up the trombone. Although he proved a talented cello player, he switched to the bass as a teenager, developing under the tutelage of musicians Red Callender and the classically trained Herman Rheinschagen.

Early Professional Career

Mingus played bass professionally with famous bandleaders Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory in the early 1940s. Later in the decade, he wrote and played for Lionel Hampton's band and toured with Red Norvo's trio.

Mingus settled in New York in 1951. There he worked as a sideman, recording and performing with other jazz legends such as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Miles Davis. After a few years, he formed an experimental musicians' group called the Jazz Workshop.

As a soloist, Mingus was known for his rich and diverse combination of influences. He often mentioned African-American gospel music and jazz composer-pianist Duke Ellington as major sources of inspiration, and his work also drew upon New Orleans jazz, Mexican folk music, modern classical music and the work of Thelonious Monk. In his bass playing as well as his composition, Mingus favored complex rhythms, dissonant harmonies, and a mix of structure and free improvisation.

Mingus recorded more than 100 albums over the course of his career. One of his most popular short compositions is "Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat," a tribute to jazz saxophonist Lester Young. His important and influential albums of the 1950s include Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Tijuana Moods, Mingus Ah Aum and Mingus Dynasty.

Late Career Troubles and Comeback

In the early 1960s, Mingus performed regularly as a bandleader at clubs in New York and festivals around the country. However, he became known for erratic behavior both on and off the stage, and for fits of temper that sometimes ended in violence against fellow musicians or audience members.

By the end of the decade, Mingus was suffering from mental illness as well as financial difficulties. From 1967 to 1972, stricken with severe depression, he rarely appeared in public. However, he gradually recovered enough to make a comeback. Mingus was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1971, and he renewed his activities as a recording artist and performer the following year, taking part in a tour of Europe and appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival. He released such albums as Let My Children Hear Music and Cumbia & Jazz Fusion during the decade.

Death and Legacy

Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 1977. Seeking treatment for the disease, he was with his wife, Susan, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when he died of a heart attack on January 5, 1979. Just months earlier, Mingus had completed work on his final studio project, Mingus—a collaboration with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell that was released in June 1979.

In addition to his many recordings, Mingus left behind a memoir titled Beneath the Underdog, published in 1971. He has been the subject of several biographies and a documentary film, Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, which was released in 1998.

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