Charles Mingus

Jul 19th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Charles Mingus1922-1979  Charles Mingus fused musical styles drawn from classical, swing, bop, Latin, and avant-garde genres to develop a wholly original form of composition. In performance, his bass playing was strong and unique; and in his career and practice, he strove to create opportunities for jazz artists while forcing himself and those around him to strive for excellence.

Classical to Jazz

Mingus was born in 1922 in Nogales, Arizona, but the family soon moved to the Watts section of Los Angeles. His earliest influences were church choirs, classical music instruction, and Duke Ellington on the radio. Studies included composition and double-bass (following earlier efforts on cello and trombone). He created his first composition, “Half-Mast Inhibition,” at the age of 17 and showed a precocious facility. He was a prodigy on bass, and quickly moved beyond classical forms.

Mingus began performing professionally in 1942 in Barney Bigard’s band, and the following year on tour with Louis Armstrong. By the end of the decade, he was playing with Lionel Hampton, various R&B ensembles, and his own groups under the name Baron von Mingus. Recognition came in the 1950-1951 period when Mingus played with Red Norvo’s trio, after which he moved to New York. There he performed with a who’s who of jazz all-stars, including Stan Getz, Art Tatum, and Billy Taylor. He even played with his childhood idol, Duke Ellington. This period had its climax in 1953 at the famous Massey Hall concert in Toronto, when Mingus joined such talent as Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Charlie Parker.

Mingus had concurrently embarked on a new phase, focusing on composition, band-leading, and even various business and organizational experiments. In 1952, he joined with his first wife, Celia, and Max Roach to create a record label with a focus on creativity. Debut Records recorded a broad spectrum of music, and released such gems as the Massey Hall concert, a Mile Davis album, and a number of Mingus’ early sessions. He also contributed to the Jazz Composers’ Workshop from 1953 through 1955, at which time he founded the Jazz Workshop repertory group. During this period, his compositional style evolved from classical notation to looser, often verbal instructions allowing for greater improvisation.

Beginning in 1956 with the release of his album “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” Mingus had achieved mastery as a composer and bandleader. He redefined the bass as a percussive, harmonic, and melodic lead instrument (and also became a professional-caliber pianist). Over the next decade, his ensembles, ranging from quartets to 11-piece big bands, would produce an outpouring of sounds synthesizing all that preceded them and pointing the way toward jazz’s future. Notable albums included “Tijuana Moods,” “Mingus Dynasty,” and “The Clown,” with sidemen such as Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean, and Eric Dolphy. His “Revelations” was performed in 1955 at the Brandeis Festival of the Creative Arts; and in 1963, his “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” an extended work for big band, captured the inspiration and anguish that comprised Mingus’ genius. His temperamental allegiance to excellence was loud, even violent: Mingus would halt performances to scold a musician, or lecture an audience for inattention. He was outspoken on racial issues; indeed, many of his compositions are protest songs.

A Calamitous Climax

By the 1960s, Mingus’ efforts to ensure his independence were threatening his stability (financial and psychological). Debut Records had failed. In 1960, Mingus attempted to compete with the well-established Newport Jazz Festivals with his Jazz Artists Guild, which collapsed. He produced a New York Town Hall concert in 1962 with poor results, started another doomed recording venture in 1964, and was unable to publish his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Defeated monetarily and in spirit, Mingus all but vanished from 1966 until 1969.

Fortunately, events conspired to rescue him. Mingus was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition, followed by the publication of his autobiography in 1971, during which year he was awarded the Slee Chair of Music at the State University of New York. Fantasy Records purchased the Debut masters, and Mingus recorded an accomplished album for Columbia Records, “Let My Children Hear Music.” He formed a quartet in 1974 and issued new compositions, such as “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion.” Mingus’ works were adapted by ballet companies, including Alvin Ailey’s “The Mingus Dances.” And then tragically, in 1977 at his second-act peak, Mingus was diagnosed with Lou Gerhig’s disease.

He was confined to a wheelchair by the next year, unable to play. Yet he continued to compose, singing the parts to a tape recorder, and led recording sessions. He was honored at a White House concert in 1978, and his swan song was a collaboration with the folk-rock singer Joni Mitchell, simply titled, “Mingus.” He died young in terms of his talent in 1979 at the age of 56, in Mexico.

Mingus’ music lives, due largely to the tireless efforts of his widow, Sue, with whom he forged a soulful relationship in the early 1970s. A repertory group, Mingus Big Band, continues to perform. Much of his recorded output has been re-released (he recorded over 100 albums and wrote over 300 scores). He received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, one from the Smithsonian Institute, an honorary degree from Brandeis University, and an award from Yale University. A Guggenheim representative commented: “I look forward to the day when we can transcend labels like jazz and acknowledge Charles Mingus as the major American composer that he is.” The National Endowment for the Arts funded a posthumous project to catalog all of Mingus’ music, available at the New York Public Library. The Library of Congress has acquired the collection of scores, the first jazz composer so honored.

Mingus’ two-hour masterwork “Epitaph” was discovered during the cataloging process, and was performed in 1989 in New York by a 30-piece orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller. The New York Times ranked it among the “…most memorable jazz events of the decade.” Mingus named the work doubting it would be heard during his lifetime, and said he wrote it “for my tombstone.” Its performance and his recognition are a fitting legacy.


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