Charles Mingus was born on 22 April 1922 in Nogales, Arizona and died on 5 January 1979 at the age of 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he had traveled for treatment and convalescence. Charles’ ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.
At the time of his death, Charles Mingus had been recording an album with singer Joni Mitchell, which included vocal versions of some of his songs (including “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) among Mitchell originals and short, spoken word duets and home recordings of Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus. The album also featured Jaco Pastorius, another massively influential bassist and composer.
Charles was an American jazz bassist, composer, bandleader, and occasional pianist. Charles was also known for his activism against racial injustice.
Charles is highly ranked among the composers and performers of jazz, and he recorded many highly regarded albums. Dozens of musicians passed through his bands and later went on to impressive careers. Charles’ tunes—though melodic and distinctive—are not often re-recorded, in part because of their unconventional nature. Charles was also influential and creative as a band leader, recruiting talented and sometimes little-known artists whom he assembled into unconventional and revealing configurations.
Nearly as well known as his ambitious music was Charles’ often fearsome temperament, which earned him the nickname “The Angry Man of Jazz.” Charles’ refusal to compromise his musical integrity led to many on-stage eruptions, though it has been argued that his temper also grew from a need to vent frustration.
Charles was prone to depression. Charles tended to have brief periods of extreme creative activity, intermixed with fairly long periods of greatly decreased output.
Most of Charles’ music retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of Third Stream, free jazz and even classical music. Yet Charles avoided categorisation, forging his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz. Charles focused on collective improvisation, similar to the old New Orleans Jazz parades, paying particular attention to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. In creating his bands, Charles looked not only at the skills of the available musicians, but also their personalities. Charles strove to create unique music to be played by unique musicians.
Due to his brilliant writing for mid-size ensembles—and his catering to and emphasizing the strengths of the musicians in his groups—Charles is often considered the heir apparent to Duke Ellington, for whom he expressed unqualified admiration. Indeed, Dizzy Gillespie had once claimed Charles reminded him “of a young Duke”, citing their shared “organisational genius.”
Charles was raised largely in the Watts area of Los Angeles, California. Charles’ mother’s paternal heritage was Chinese and English, while historical records indicate that his father was the illegitimate offspring of a black farmhand and his Swedish employer’s white granddaughter.
Charles’ mother allowed only church-related music in their home, but Charles developed an early love for jazz, especially the music of Duke Ellington. Charles studied trombone, and later cello. Much of the cello technique he learned was applicable to double bass when he took up the instrument in high school.
Beginning in his teen years, Charles was writing quite advanced pieces; many are similar to Third Stream Jazz. A number of them were recorded in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller, and released as Pre-Bird, referring to Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Charles gained a reputation as something of a bass prodigy. Charles toured with Louis Armstrong in 1943, then played with Lionel Hampton’s band in the late 1940s; Louis performed and recorded several of Charles’ pieces. A popular trio of Charles Mingus, Red Norvo and Tal Farlow in 1950 and 1951 received considerable acclaim, but Charles’ mixed origin caused problems with club owners and he left the group. Charles was briefly a member of Ellington’s band in the early 1950s, and notorious temper reportedly led to his being the only musician personally fired by Ellington (although there are reports that Sidney Bechet in 1925 was another), after an on-stage fight between Charles and Juan Tizol.
Also in the early 1950s, before attaining commercial recognition as a bandleader, Charles played gigs with Charlie Parker, whose compositions and improvisations greatly inspired and influenced him. Charles considered Charlie Parker the greatest genius and innovator in jazz history, but he had a love-hate relationship with Charlie Parker’s legacy. Charles Mingus blamed the Parker mythology for a derivative crop of pretenders to Charlie Parker’s throne. Charles was also conflicted and sometimes disgusted by Charlie Parker’s self-destructive habits and the romanticised lure of drug addiction they offered to other jazz musicians. In response to the many sax players who imitated Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus titled a song, “If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There’d be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats” (released on Mingus Dynasty as “Gunslinging Bird”).
In 1952 Charles co-founded Debut Records with Max Roach, in order to conduct his recording career as he saw fit; the name originated with a desire to document unrecorded young musicians. Despite this, the best known recording the company issued was of the most prominent figures in bebop. On 15 May, 1953, Charles joined Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach for a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, which is the last recorded documentation of the two lead instrumentalists playing together. After the event, Charles chose to overdub his barely-audible bass part back in New York; the original version was issued later. The 2 10″ albums of the Massey Hall concert (one featured the trio of Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach) were among Debut Records’ earliest releases. Charles may have objected to the way the major record companies treated musicians, but Gillespie once commented that he did not receive any royalties “for years and years” for his Massey Hall appearance. The records though, are often regarded as among the finest live jazz recordings.
In 1955, Charles was involved in a notorious incident while playing a club date billed as a “reunion” with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. Bud Powell, who had suffered from alcoholism and mental illness for years (potentially exacerbated by a severe police beating and electroshock treatments), had to be helped from the stage, unable to play or speak coherently. As Bud Powell’s incapacitation became apparent, Charlie Parker stood in one spot at a microphone, chanting “Bud Powell…Bud Powell…” as if beseeching Bud Powell’s return. Allegedly, Charlie Parker continued this incantation for several minutes after Bud Powell’s departure, to his own amusement and Charles Mingus’ exasperation. Charles Mingus took another microphone and announced to the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t associate me with any of this. This is not jazz. These are sick people.” This was Charlie Parker’s last public performance, about a week later Charlie Parker died after years of alcohol and drug abuse.
Charles Mingus often worked with a mid-sized ensemble (around 8–10 members) of rotating musicians known as the Jazz Workshop. Charles Mingus broke new ground, constantly demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot. Those who joined the Workshop (or Sweatshops as they were colorfully dubbed by the musicians) included Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Charles McPherson and Horace Parlan. Charles Mingus shaped these promising novices into a cohesive improvisational machine that in many ways anticipated free jazz. Some musicians dubbed the workshop a “university” for jazz.
The decade which followed is generally regarded as Charles Mingus’s most productive and fertile period. Impressive new compositions and albums appeared at an astonishing rate: some 30 records in 10 years, for a number of record labels (Atlantic Records, Candid, Columbia Records, Impulse! Records and others), a pace perhaps unmatched by any other musician except Ellington.
Charles Mingus had already recorded around 10 albums as a bandleader, but 1956 was a breakthrough year for him, with the release of Pithecanthropus Erectus, arguably his first major work as both a bandleader and composer. Like Ellington, Charles Mingus wrote songs with specific musicians in mind, and his band for Erectus included adventurous, though distinctly blues-oriented musicians, piano player Mal Waldron, alto saxophonist Jackie McLean and the Sonny Rollins-influenced tenor of J. R. Monterose. The title song is a 10 minute tone poem, depicting the rise of man from his hominid roots (Pithecanthropus erectus) to an eventual downfall. A section of the piece was improvised free of structure or theme.
Another album from this period, The Clown (1957 also on Atlantic Records), with an improvised story on the title track by humorist Jean Shepherd, was the first to feature drummer Dannie Richmond. Dannie Richmond would be his preferred drummer until Charles Mingus’s death in 1979. The two men formed one of the most impressive and versatile rhythm sections in jazz. Both were accomplished performers seeking to stretch the boundaries of their music while staying true to its roots. When joined by pianist Jaki Byard, they were dubbed “The Almighty Three”.
Though he initially expressed rather mixed feelings for Coleman’s innovative music: “…if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something…Most of the time they use their fingers on the saxophone and they don’t even know what’s going to come out. They’re experimenting.” Charles Mingus was in fact a prime influence of the early free jazz era. Charles Mingus formed a quartet with Dannie Richmond, trumpeter Ted Curson and saxophonist Eric Dolphy. This ensemble featured the same instruments as Coleman’s quartet, and is often regarded as Charles Mingus rising to the challenging new standard established by Coleman. Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, the quartet’s sole album, is frequently included among the finest in Charles Mingus’s catalogue.
In 1963, Charles Mingus released The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, a sprawling, multi-section masterpiece, described as “one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history.” The album was also unique in that Charles Mingus asked his psychotherapist to provide notes for the record.
1963 also saw the release of an unaccompanied album Mingus Plays Piano. Charles’ piano technique, though capable and expressive, was somewhat unrefined when compared to Herbie Hancock or other contemporary jazz pianists, but the album is still generally well regarded. A few pieces were entirely improvised and drew on classical music as much as jazz, preceding Keith Jarrett’s landmark The Köln Concert in those respects by some 12 years.
In 1964 Charles Mingus put together one of his best-known groups, a sextet including Dannie Richmond, Jaki Byard, Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Johnny Coles, and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. The group was recorded frequently during its short existence; Johnny Coles fell ill during a European tour. On 28 June, 1964 Eric Dolphy died while in Berlin, and Charles Mingus was evicted from his New York home in 1966.
Charles Mingus’s pace slowed somewhat in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974 he formed a quintet with Dannie Richmond, pianist Don Pullen, trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxophonist George Adams. They recorded 2 well-received albums, Changes 1 and Changes 2. Charles also played with Charles McPherson in many of his groups during this time.
Cumbia and Jazz Fusion in 1976 sought to blend Colombian music (the “Cumbia” of the title) with more traditional jazz forms.
In 1971, Charles Mingus taught for a semester at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York as the Slee Professor of Music.
By the mid-1970s, Charles Mingus was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a wastage of the musculature. Charles Mingus once formidable bass technique suffered, until he could no longer play the instrument. Charles continued composing, however, and supervised a number of recordings before his death.
The music of Charles Mingus is currently being performed and reinterpreted by the Mingus Big Band, which plays every Tuesday at Iridium Jazz Club in New York City, and often tours the rest of the U.S. and Europe. Elvis Costello has written lyrics for a few Mingus pieces. Charles Mingus had once sung lyrics for one piece, “Invisible Lady”, being backed by the Mingus Big Band on the album, Tonight at Noon: Three of Four Shades of Love.
In addition to the Mingus Big Band, there is the Mingus Orchestra and the Mingus Dynasty, each of which are managed by Jazz Workshop, Inc., and run by Charles’s widow Sue Graham Mingus. Other tribute bands are also active all around the US and the world, including Mingus Amungus in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Swedish Mingus Band Siegmund Freud’s Mothers in Stockholm.
Epitaph is considered by many to be the masterwork of Charles Mingus. It is a composition which is more than 4,000 measures long, requires 2 hours to perform and was only completely discovered during the cataloging process after his death by musicologist Andrew Homzy. With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, the score and instrumental parts were copied, and the piece itself was premiered by a 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller. This concert was produced by Charles Mingus’s widow, Sue Graham Mingus, at Alice Tully Hall on 3 June, 1989, 10 years after his death. Epitaph is one of the longest jazz pieces ever written.
Considering the number of compositions that Charles Mingus has written, his works have not been recorded as often as comparable jazz composers. Of all his works, his elegant elegy for Lester Young, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” (from Mingus Ah Um) has probably had the most recordings. Besides recordings from the expected jazz artists, the song has also been recorded by musicians as disparate as Jeff Beck, Andy Summers, Eugene Chadbourne, and Bert Jansch and John Renbourn with and without Pentangle. Joni Mitchell sang a version with lyrics that she wrote for the song. Elvis Costello has recorded “Hora Decubitus” (from Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus) on My Flame Burns Blue (2006). “Better Git It in Your Soul” was covered by Davey Graham on his album “Folk, Blues, and Beyond.” Trumpeter Ron Miles performs a version of “Pithecanthropus Erectus” on his EP “Witness.” New York Ska Jazz Ensemble has done a cover of Charles Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song”, as have Pentangle and others. Hal Willner’s 1992 tribute album Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus (Columbia Records) contains idiosyncratic renditions of Charles Mingus’s works involving numerous popular musicians including Chuck D, Keith Richards, Henry Rollins and Dr. John. The italian band Quintorigo recorded an entire album devoted to Charles Mingus’ music, titled Play Mingus.
As respected as Charles Mingus was for his musical talents, he was often feared for his sometimes violent onstage temper, which was at times directed at members of his band, and other times aimed at the audience. Charles Mingus was physically large, prone to obesity (especially in his later years), and was by all accounts often intimidating and frightening when expressing anger or displeasure.
When confronted with a nightclub audience talking and clinking ice in their glasses while he performed, Charles Mingus stopped his band and loudly chastised the audience, stating “Isaac Stern doesn’t have to put up with this shit.” Charles once played a prank on a similar group of nightclub chatterers by silencing his band for several seconds, allowing the loud audience members to be clearly heard, then continuing as the rest of the audience snickered at the oblivious “soloists”.
Guitarist and singer Jackie Paris was a first-hand witness to Charles Mingus’s irascibility. Paris recalls his time in the Jazz Workshop: “He chased everybody off the stand except [drummer] Paul Motian and me… The three of us just wailed on the blues for about an hour and a half before he called the other cats back.”
While onstage at a memorial concert in Philadelphia, he reportedly attempted to crush his pianist’s hands with the instrument’s keyboard cover, then punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth.[On 12 October, 1962, Charles Mingus slapped Jimmy Knepper in the mouth while the 2 men were working together at Charles Mingus’s apartment on a score for his upcoming concert at New York Town Hall and Jimmy Knepper refused to take on more work. The blow broke a cap and its tooth stub. According to Jimmy Knepper, this ruined his embouchure and resulted in the permanent loss of the top octave of his range on the trombone. This attack ended their working relationship and Jimmy Knepper was unable to perform at the concert. Charged with assault, Charles Mingus appeared in court in January, 1963 and was given a suspended sentence. In another incident, saxophonist Jackie McLean, fearing the bassist was about to kill him, nearly stabbed Charles Mingus after Charles Mingus punched him.
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