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Mingus, Charles free

  • Brian Priestley

Caricature of Charles Mingus by John Minnion. John Minnion/Lebrecht Music and Arts

(b Nogales, AZ, April 22, 1922; d Cuernavaca, Mexico, Jan 5, 1979). American double bass player, pianist, composer, and bandleader. One of the key figures of the transition from bebop to more adventurous approaches, Mingus was a virtuoso bassist whose unusual bandleading methods created a large body of original compositional material.

1. Life.

Raised from the age of a few months in Los Angeles, he first attempted to study trombone as a child under the inspiration of gospel music and radio performances by Duke Ellington. He also learned light European music on cello and eventually joined a school symphony orchestra. His interest in playing piano by ear was also evident during this period. Future professional musicians among his peer group, such as the trombonist Britt Woodman and the clarinetist Buddy Collette, counseled him to move from cello to double bass, with which he was identified by his mid-teens.

His playing benefited from studies with Red Callender and a former symphonic player, Herman Rheinschagen, and he was a member of a rehearsal band run by the trumpeter Lloyd Reese which functioned as an informal arrangers’ workshop. Mingus gained employment with Duke Ellington’s clarinetist Barney Bigard (1942), the drummer Lee Young (1943), and Louis Armstrong (probably between working with Bigard and Young). He was able to form short-lived groups to record populist 78 r.p.m. singles such as “Shuffle Bass Boogie” (1946) under his own name and to pursue more ambitious work with the unrecorded cooperative the Stars of Swing (1946). His first exposure on the national scene consisted of touring in the big band of Lionel Hampton (1947–8), after which he lived briefly in San Francisco and assembled his own big band for recording (1949).

A year and a half working with the trio of Red Norvo (1950–51) was preceded and followed by periods of employment outside of music, latterly because he was establishing himself in New York. While enjoying brief affiliations with such figures as Charlie Parker and Ellington (1952–3), Mingus and Max Roach set up an independent record label, Debut, which survived until the late 1950s; its material was eventually sold to the Fantasy group. During the period 1953–5, Mingus was involved in another cooperative, the Jazz Composers’ Workshop, with, among others, the saxophonist Teo Macero. After deciding that this venture was too dedicated to fully-composed repertoire, in the fall of 1955 he premiered the first of his own bands entitled the Jazz Workshop.

Pioneering a group style that was unique for the late 1950s, Mingus led a series of quintets, and occasionally sextets, that appeared regularly until 1967. Their frequent turnover of personnel reflected Mingus’s demanding musical standards and his sometimes irascible demeanor. It became expected of him to castigate sidemen during public appearances, when he often demanded to restart a performance that failed to satisfy him, and he used his reputation to attract attention from otherwise fickle audiences. The autobiography that he began in the 1950s (Beneath the Underdog, New York, 1971) and his interest in the combination of jazz and speech (“The Clown,” 1957; Weary Blues, 1958, with the poet Langston Hughes) may be seen as aspects of his desire for verbal communication.

The groups that recorded the landmark albums Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) and The Clown (1957) were often expanded by the return of former sidemen on such ventures as Blues and Roots, Mingus Ah Um, and Mingus Dynasty (all 1959). When the opportunity arose, he employed larger bands with a mixture of written composition and more spontaneous creation. Examples are parts of Pre-Bird (also known as Mingus Revisited, 1960), the ill-prepared Town Hall Concert (1962), and the successful Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963). The latter, arguably his most complex and best realized work, also benefits from the use of creative tape-editing and overdubbing, both of which had interested Mingus for at least a decade.

Mingus’s high profile earned him appearances with Dave Brubeck (in the film All Night Long, 1961) and Ellington (on the album Money Jungle, 1962). But the diminishing audience for jazz in the later 1960s and the failure of another independent record company led to psychological problems and his withdrawal from music until 1969. During the following decade, however, Mingus created new small groups and large-band albums (including Let my Children Hear Music, 1971, which was partly financed by a Guggenheim fellowship). His touring now incorporated Europe and Japan, and his reemergence as an elder statesman was only halted by illness. Diagnosed in 1977 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he directed his last recording from a wheelchair, and his collaboration with Joni Mitchell was completed by her after his death.

From 1979 his widow Susan Mingus has made consistent efforts to ensure his music’s continued and regular exposure through three groups: the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Orchestra, and the Mingus Big Band. This last, which had been performing weekly for two decades by the early 2010s, is an exception to the rule in jazz that the music of a “ghost band” has no life of its own.

2. Work.

Mingus made his initial impact on the wider jazz world through his bass playing, firstly with Lionel Hampton’s recording of Mingus’s piece “Mingus Fingers,” which featured the composer throughout. The Red Norvo trio gained much of their effectiveness from his intelligent virtuosity, which was equal to the mobile guitar of trio member Tal Farlow, the trumpet-like upper-register lines of the bass being unusually secure for the period (for instance, on Norvo’s “Godchild”). Thereafter bandleaders who hired Mingus expected an interactive participation that was untypical for the double bass at the time, and it later became an omnipresent characteristic of his own bands.

In perfecting his bass technique Mingus studied the European repertoire and imported techniques like double-stopping (as in “Ysabel’s Table Dance”). These were employed not for effect but for musical ends, such as the alternation of notes an octave apart to create tension-building pedal-points (“E’s Flat, A’s Flat Too”), and he occasionally used guitar-like sounds, such as the rasping tone heard in his introduction to “Money Jungle.” During the periods 1956–70 and 1974–8 the Jazz Workshop enjoyed the closest of collaborations with the drummer Dannie Richmond, who frequently joined Mingus in changing the rhythmic flow by switching from 4/4 to 2/4 or 6/4, without moving the bar-line. Mingus was also one of the first jazz composers to incorporate passages of free-tempo or rubato (for example, the speech-like dialogue of double bass and bass clarinet on “What Love”).

Mingus’s mature compositional methods, heard from 1955 onwards, were radical in initially rejecting the use of notated parts. His then unfashionable insistence on dictating predetermined elements, both in lengthy rehearsals and sometimes mid-performance, placed unfamiliar demands on sidemen. This in turn allowed him to nurture the creativity of several nonconformist players including Jimmy Knepper, Booker Ervin, Eric Dolphy, and Jaki Byard; others who served shorter tenures, such as Jackie McLean and Roland Kirk, were still marked by the experience. While Mingus’s compositions are readily identifiable by their structural and rhythmic qualities, they are realized through the strength of his soloists. They also allowed him to personalize his adaptations of popular standards, with Cole Porter’s “What is this thing called love” recast as “What Love” (1960) and “Wham Bam, Thank You Ma’am” (1961), while Vernon Duke’s “I can’t get started” retained the original melody briefly in one arrangement (1959) and was embellished in “My Search” (1962).

Mingus’s innovations were numerous and influential. Sections of pieces that relied on static mode-based solos (“Haitian Fight Song,” recorded in 1955 and 1957) and those requiring collective improvisation (“Pithecanthropus Erectus”) can be seen as precursors of Miles Davis’s late 1950s modal period and the free jazz of the 1960s, respectively. The illusion of communal spontaneity, memorably described by Richmond as “planned chaos,” was also created by ensembles that combined simultaneous thematic motifs (“Fables of Faubus”), often built in pyramid fashion (“E’s Flat, A’s Flat Too”). Cross references between pieces that had been recorded separately (“Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” and “Better get it in your soul,” or “Jelly Roll” and “My Jelly Roll Soul”) could be even more complex in live versions, such as performances from 1964 of “Faubus” that incorporate allusions to “Ysabel’s Table Dance.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that many of Mingus’s most vivid compositions have a programmatic element that is suggested either in their titles or in his own comments. Their often episodic nature runs the gamut from musically justifiable contrast to sometimes violent mood swings exemplifying the conscious theatricality of a postmodernist sensibility (as in the guitar interlude of Black Saint and the incessant variety of “Sue’s Changes”). The rare incorporation of sound effects is as much part of Mingus’s armory as the undertones of satire in the politically inspired “Fables of Faubus.” Notwithstanding the fact that some later works had political titles assigned after the fact (e.g. “Remember Rockefeller at Attica”), the many pieces referring to such figures as Ellington, Parker, and Lester Young betoken genuine admiration for his forbears.

Mingus identified himself as a composer during his teenage years, and the early pieces that he chose to revive (“The Chill of Death,” c1939, and “Half-Mast Inhibition,” c1940) have a distinctly European orchestral cast. His later large-ensemble output veers between a fairly conventional big-band style (“The I of Hurricane Sue”) and brilliant combinations of written material with the freedom of his small-group methods described above (Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and the Monterey version of “Meditations on Integration”). The music intended for his Town Hall concert of 1962, subsequently edited and realized in performance by Gunther Schuller as Epitaph (1989), is a more unwieldy example which nevertheless has many striking moments. It also demonstrates that the qualities of Mingus’s work can rise above the constraints of repertory performance, despite the fact that so much of the composer’s personality was embodied in his music.

Selected Recordings

As leader

Shuffle Bass Boogie (1946, Excelsior)

Charles Mingus Quintet (1955, Debut), incl. Haitian Fight Song

Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956, Atl.), incl. Pithecanthropus Erectus

The Clown (1957, Atl.), incl. Haitian Fight Song, The Clown

Tijuana Moods (1957, RCA), incl. Ysabel’s Table Dance

A Modern Jazz Symposium of Music and Poetry (1957, Beth.)

Jazz Portraits (1959, UA), incl. I can’t get started

Blues and Roots (1959, Atl.), incl. E’s Flat, Ah’s Flat Too, My Jelly Roll Soul, Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting

Mingus Ah Um (1959, Col.), incl. Better get it in your soul, Fables of Faubus, Jelly Roll

Mingus Dynasty (1959, Col.)

Pre-Bird (1960, Mer.), incl. Half-Mast Inhibition

Presents Charles Mingus (1960, Can.), incl. Original Faubus Fables, What Love

Oh Yeah! (1961, Atl.), incl. Wham Bam, Thank you Ma’am

Town Hall Concert (1962, UA), incl. My Search

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963, Imp.)

The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (1964, America), incl. Fables of Faubus

Mingus at Monterey (1964, Charles Mingus), incl. Meditations on Integration

Let my Children Hear Music (1971, Col.), incl. The Chill of Death, The I of Hurricane Sue

Changes One (1974, Atl.), incl. Sue’s Changes, Remember Rockefeller at Attica

As sideman

L. Hampton: Mingus Fingers (1947, Decca)

R. Norvo: Godchild (1951, Dis.)

Quintet of the Year (1953, Debut)

L. Hughes: Weary Blues (MGM); D. Ellington: Money Jungle (1962, UA)


  • N. Hentoff: “Charlie Mingus: Cafe Bohemia, New York,” DB, 23/1 (1956), 8
  • I. Gitler: “Mingus Speaks, and Bluntly,” DB, 27/15 (1960), 29
  • G. Lees: “Newport: the Trouble,” DB, 27/17 (1960), 20
  • T. White: “Mingus at Town Hall,” Jazz, 1/3 (1963), 13
  • J. Berendt: “Mingus and the Shadow of Duke Ellington,” Jazz, 4/4 (1965), 17
  • D. Locke: “Jazz Paradox,” JM, 11/9 (1965), 23
  • W. Balliett: Ecstasy at the Onion (New York, 1971), 263
  • C. Mingus: Beneath the Underdog, ed. N. King (New York, 1971)
  • E. Jost: Free Jazz (Graz, Austria, 1974/R)
  • J. Litweiler: “There’s a Mingus Among Us,” DB, 42/4 (1975), 12
  • G. Giddins: “Three or Four Shades of Mingus,” VV(3 July 1978)
  • B. Primack: “The Gospel According to Mingus: Disciples Carry the Tune,” DB, 45/20 (1978), 12
  • B. Sidran: “Charles Mingus Finds a New Voice,” Rolling Stone (28 Dec 1978–11 Jan 1979)
  • D. Morgenstern: “Charles Mingus 1922–1979,” Radio Free Jazz (1979), Feb, 14
  • B. Priestley: Mingus: a Critical Biography (London, 1982)
  • H.L. Lindenmaier and H.J. Salewski: The Man who Never Sleeps: the Charles Mingus Discography 1945–1978 (Freiburg, Germany, 1983)
  • G. Santoro: Myself when I am Real: the Life and Music of Charles Mingus (New York, 2000)
  • S. Zenni: Charles Mingus: polifonie dell’Universo Afroamericano (Viterbo, Italy, 2002)
  • B. Priestley: “Mingus in the Recording Studio,” Musica Oggi: Charles Mingus, prospettive di analisi, 22 (2002), 42–7
  • J. Griffith: “Mingus in the Act: Confronting the Legacies of Vaudeville and Minstrelsy,” Jazz Perspectives, 4/3 (2010), 337–68
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