Jazz Master of the Month: Charles Mingus

May 13, 2016

Charles Mingus was a virtuoso bassist, and an accomplished pianist bandleader, and composer. Mingus favored complex rhythms, mixed harmonies and a combination of structured and free improvisation in his music, drawing heavily from black gospel music and the blues.

Mingus was born 1922 in Nagoles, Arizona, and raised in Watts, California. By the 1940s he was touring with Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and Lionel Hampton. After settling in New York in the early 1950s, he began performing with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Bud Powell.

By the mid 1950s, Mingus became one of the few bassists to distinguish himself as a band leader. He formed his own music publishing company and record company in order to own and document his ever-growing body of compositions. He also founded the “Jazz Workshop” which enabled young musicians to record and perform their original works in concert

In 1959 Mingus brought together several large ensembles in the recording studio. One of his best known works of that year, Ah Um, yielded the numbers “Better Git It in Your Soul,” a 6/4 number celebrating the music of the Holiness church, and “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat,” composed in the 12-bar blues form and dedicated to saxophone great Lester Young. In February Mingus recorded the Atlantic album, Roots & Blues. This album contained another of Mingus’s gospel-inspired 6/4 numbers, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” described by Brian Priestley in Mingus: A Critical Biography as “the masterpiece of planned chaos.” In November Mingus led yet another session that yielded the Columbia LP Mingus Dynasty. With the addition of saxophonist and flutist Eric Dolphy in 1960, Mingus found a brilliant collaborator who helped inspire the bassist/bandleader to a new creative height. Mingus’s 1960 album Pre-Bi rd.--reissued as Mingus Revisited-featured a 22-piece orchestra under the direction of Gunther Schuller and is best remembered for a rendition of Mingus’s haunting piece “Half Mast Inhibition. 

On January 20, 1963, Mingus recorded his masterpiece recording of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Backed by a ten-piece orchestra, Mingus created a composition greater in length than the jazz suites and extended works produced by Ellington. 

After becoming a published author, Mingus signed a new recording contract with Columbia. His 1972 Columbia album, Let My Children Hear Music was produced by his former music associate and saxophonist Teo Macero. Supported by a talented line-up of musicians, the album represented a collection of earlier written pieces, including Mingus’s childhood poem/composition “Chill of Death,” and several new works arranged by Sy Johnson and Alan Ralph. Not long afterward, Mingus assembled a new band made of several fine sidemen such as drummer Dannie Richmond and pianist Don Pullen. This unit proved to be one of the longest-lasting ensembles of his career. After nearly two years of experience performing with Mingus, the ensemble backed him for the 1975 Atlantic albums Mingus Changes One and Changes Two. In the liner notes to Changes One, Nat Hentoff predicted that the music of these albums was “going to have a long life because it is so authoritatively, inventively together the compositions, the solos, the forthright ease of empathy of which these musicians interweave. 

Mingus looked to music as a means of self-expression and redefinition — a means of overcoming inner antagonisms and the barriers of race. Complex in mood and intellectual temperament, Mingus condemned America for ignoring its artists and perpetuating racism. Despite the lack of mass audience for his avant-garde explorations, he nevertheless sought commercial success in the mainstream marketplace. While known for diatribes concerning race, he distanced himself from the militant voices of African American protest by condemning black radical groups for “having nothing to sell.” Called the “bull” by fellow artists, Mingus reveled in exerting his creative and physical prowess.

He once said, "We create our own slavery. But I’m going to keep getting through and finding out what kind of man I am through my music. That’s the only place I can be free."

Charles Mingus recorded over 100 albums during his career. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition in 1972

In November of 1977, Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He spent his last years touring and directing his band from a wheelchair. Despite his illness, he continued to tour regularly. In 1978, he and his wife Susan Ungaro attended an all-star jazz concert held at the White House. In Talking Jazz: An Oral History, Dizzy Gillespie recalled how President Carter “walked all the way across the lawn to Mingus, and grabbed him and hugged him.” Moved by the president’s gesture, the wheelchair-ridden bassist broke into tears.

Mingus died aged 56, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had traveled for treatment and convalescence. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.