Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MINGUS, Charles

(b 22 April 1922, Nogales, Arizona; d 5 January 1979, Cuernavaca, Mexico) Bassist, bandleader, composer; also piano and vocals. He is often classed with the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington as one of the most important composers in 20th-century black music, and who thence influenced other musics profoundly; but as a composer he was not in their league. Like Thelonious Monk he wrote good themes, but bad luck, his shambolic life and his volatile personality prevented much formal composition. Yet his music is utterly unique, not only with his musical fingerprints but in the way it demands and cries for the freedom of the soul; his greatness lay in his passion. Like Ellington he was a great talent scout, hiring scores of the best musicians, many of whom never played better than when they were with him.

His ancestry included Swedish, Native American, African-American, possibly Scottish ('Mingus' is an old spelling of 'Menzies'). His light-skinned father was a staff sergeant in the US Army; his mother died soon after his birth and the family moved to Los Angeles. His sisters studied classical violin and piano; their stepmother would allow only religious music at home, but took him to Holiness Church, where 'moaning and riffs ... between the audience and the preacher' made an early impression. He studied trombone in school, helped by Britt Woodman (b 4 June 1920, Los Angeles; d 13 October 2000, Hawthorne CA; played with Ellington '51-60, also with Mingus); then cello, switching to bass as Buddy Collette pointed out that the Jordan High School band needed a bassist. The band also included Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon, Ernie Royal. His excellent pitch sense and poor teachers made him a slow reader of music, but better teachers included Joe Comfort (b 18 July 1917, Alcoen MS; later with Lionel Hampton, Nat Cole trio, superb on the Frank Sinatra/Nelson Riddle albums), Red Callender, later H. Reinschagen of the NY Philharmonic. Mingus replaced Callender in Lee Young's band, led own Strings and Keys trio; his first recordings were transcription sessions for broadcast with the Louis Armstrong band '43. He played and recorded on the West Coast with Howard McGhee, Illinois Jacquet, Dinah Washington, Ivie Anderson, others including his own groups; with Hampton '47-8. Charles 'Baron' Mingus, West Coast, 1945-49 on Uptown 2000, produced by Robert Sunenblick and Chuck Nessa, compiled all the 78s made by Mingus under his own name on five obscure labels, some of them never before reissued in any format: it is fascinating to hear the young composer searching for his voice, and the picture of early post-war West Coast jazz is also valuable, the price of the CD worth it for the 95-page booklet alone, written by Sunenblick and Andrew Homzy.

Mingus was working for the post office when asked to join the Red Norvo Trio '50-51 with Tal Farlow: the successful trio helped usher in West Coast 'cool jazz'; Mingus placed in the bass category in a down beat poll, but racism combined with union rules to cause his replacement by a white bassist for a TV broadcast and he left the trio, having intended to relocate in NYC anyway. Innovators such as Lennie Tristano were in NYC; Mingus was already composing and had decided to identify with black music (though he would hire whites, saying 'All the good ones are colorless'). He was soon highly rated as teacher as well as bassist: influnced by pianists (like Tristano) as well as Charlie Parker, he took the bass beyond the Jimmy Blanton/Oscar Pettiford concept of playing melodic solos and played it almost like a guitar. Joined his idol Ellington early '53 (broadcasts recorded) but his strong personality allegedly led to a violent scene with Juan Tizol: Mingus was one of the few Ellington ever fired. He formed a Jazz Composers Workshop and the Debut label '53-7 with Max Roach, an early attempt by artists to control their work (some records later reissued on Fantasy; Debut recorded the first dates under their own names by Teo Macero, Kenny Dorham, Paul Bley, John La Porta, Thad Jones, Sam Most (b 16 December 1930, Atlantic City, NJ; d 13 June 2013: reedman and one of the first jazz flautists; became L.A. studio musician). An early Debut issue was the famous concert at Toronto's Massey Hall '53 with Mingus, Roach, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell (Mingus overdubbed his bass part because he thought the recording was poor; both dubbed and undubbed versions can be heard in the 12-CD set Complete Debut Recordings issued by Fantasy '90). The Debut jam session Four Trombones led to Mingus playing on a Savoy LP by J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding (including his 'Reflections', different from anything else they recorded). Sextet tracks '54 with La Porta and Macero were reissued many times: on Savoy, 'Eulogy For Rudy Williams' (Swing Era reedman b 1909, Newark NJ; drowned September 1954) was his first tribute to a fellow musician, while other tracks were loaded with interpolations (he always recomposed his own and others' material: thus 'Weird Nightmare', '46 and '60 with vocals, 'Pipe Dream' '46, 'Smooch' '53 recorded by Miles Davis and 'Vassarlean' '60 are all the same tune). Abstractions added Thad Jones on 'Minor Intrusion', 'Stormy Weather', etc. In '55 there was a reunion of Parker, Powell and Mingus that turned into a shambles; see Powell's entry.

[There has been a lot of nonsense written about the '53 Massey Hall concert, Bird arriving late and without a horn, Bird and/or Powell being incapable and so on, virtually all of it from the book Bird Lives, by Ross Russell, who wasn't there.]

The mature Mingus began to emerge on two LPs made live at Cafe Bohemia late '55: with Mal Waldon, Eddie Bert on trombone (also played with Machito, Thad Jones etc), George Barrow on tenor (b 25 September 1921, NYC; d there 20 March 2013), drummer Willie Jones (b 20 October 1929, Brooklyn), Roach on some tracks; including interpretations/ interpolations of standards e.g. 'A Foggy Day', 'Septemberly'; 'All The Things You C Sharp' combined Jerome Kern and Rachmaninoff; plus originals 'Haitian Fight Song', 'Jump Monk', etc. Pithecanthropus Erectus '56 on Atlantic included Jones, Jackie McLean, Waldron, tenor saxist J.R. Monterose (b 19 January 1927, Detroit; d 26 September 1993, Utica NY), announced arrival of the volatile genius: the title tone poem incorporated swinging roots in blues and gospel with modern harmonies, the unmistakable Mingus sound. A good year was '57: Jazz Workshop sessions included The Clown on Atlantic, with Shafi Hadi on reeds (b Curtis Porter, 21 September 1929, Philadelphia) and the first appearance of long-term sidemen Jimmy Knepper on trombone, Dannie Richmond on drums. One of his compositions was played at Brandeis U (see Gunther Schuller's entry) and there was a trio date with Hampton Hawes and Richmond on Jubilee; then back to the workshop: of the fiery masterpiece Tijuana Moods on RCA, with Knepper, Richmond, Hadi and the brilliant trumpeter Clarence Shaw (b 16 June 1926, Detroit; subsequently dropped from view), Mingus said 'This is the best record I ever made' when it was finally issued '62. The excellent East Coasting and Scenes In The City were both on Bethlehem. The Clown and Scenes In The City are among his less well-known albums, partly because each has a long track flirting with jazz-poetry, and the spoken words do not bear repeated listenings. Tijuana Moods was actually made for RCA's Vik subsidiary as part of a settlement of a lawsuit; RCA had used Thad Jones when the trumpeter was under contract to Debut: it was Mingus's first record in stereo and his first for a major label, and it was a low point in his life when RCA did not issue it at the time, and Bethelehem did not renew his contract. He tried psychoanalysis, went to NYC's Bellevue hospital for help '58 and bureaucrats there locked him up; friends including Nat Hentoff had to get him out. That year saw a superb collection Blues & Roots on Atlantic with four reeds, two trombones, no trumpet; he was now in his stride as a leader, teaching the best young musicians to play his music but demanding that they give it everything they had; the tonal colours in his powerful work, like those of Ellington, are instantly recognizable and will never date, but also included his own uniquely urgent swing. A live quintet LP Wonderland '59 on UA included John Handy and Booker Ervin; Columbia dates that year with 8-10 pieces (produced by Macero) resulted in classic versions of 'Pussy Cat Dues', 'Boogie Stop Shuffle', 'Jelly Roll', 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat', 'Fables Of Faubus', many more: Mingus Ah-Um and Mingus Dynasty bristled with brilliant solos and vital swing. In January '59 on Wonderland, later called Mingus In Wonderland on a Blue Note CD, the pianist was Richard Wyands; in May for Mingus Ah-Um it was Horace Parlan; in Nov. on Mingus Dynasty it was Roland Hanna (b 10 February 1932, Detroit; d 13 November 2002, Hackensack NJ); then a pianoless group: sessions for Archie Bleyer's short-lived Candid label '60 (produced by Hentoff) included Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, superb incandescent quartet tracks with Richmond, Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy included 'Folk Forms', 'All The Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother', 'Original Faubus Fables' (with the savage lyrics Columbia wouldn't allow, skewering the racist governor of Arkansas); octet tracks on Candid included 'Lock 'Em Up' (aka 'Hellview Of Bellevue'); other tracks with Dolphy, Knepper, Roy Eldridge, Tommy Flanagan and Jo Jones represent the short-lived Newport Rebels/Jazz Artists Guild: elder statesman Eldridge told Mingus, 'I wanted to find out what bag you were in. Now I know you're in the right bag.' Columbia once issued unedited and additional '59 tracks in confusingly titled two-LP Nostalgia In Times Square '79 (that tune not recorded for Columbia, but on Wonderland). The Complete 1959 CBS Charles Mingus Sessions and The Complete Candid Recordings Of Charles Mingus were compiled on Mosaic, the former on vinyl only and the limited editions soon out of print; Columbia CDs duplicated LP releases except for Shoes Of The Fisherman, which included some unedited '59 tracks; Candid was revived by the British producer Alan Bates, the original Mingus albums reissued; finally Columbia came out with a 3-CD set of The Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings '98, with unedited and unissued tracks.

Mingus priced himself out of the Newport Jazz Festival '60 and formed a Newport Rebel Festival included a gig with Roach, Dorham and Ornette Coleman, not recorded. Same year saw Mingus at Antibes (Jazz Festival) on Atlantic, with Dolphy, Curson, Ervin, Richmond and guest Bud Powell on a blistering 'I'll Remember April'. The Big-band Pre-Bird on Mercury showcased early compositions including 'Half-Mast Inhibition' (conducted by Gunther Schuller). Oh Yeah and Tonight At Noon '61 on Atlantic included Roland Kirk in a sextet; Mingus played piano, with the excellent Doug Watkins on bass (the latter LP included tracks left over from '57 Clown sessions). Money Jungle '61 was a trio with Roach and Ellington on UA, a tense, exciting album with tunes by both Duke and Mingus, unlike anything else either of them ever did, reissued on Blue Note with previously unissued tracks. To make the Ellington date he took time from preparing music for a Town Hall big-band gig '62: it was meant to be a public rehearsal, but he forgot to tell the public; the date was moved up five weeks and he quarrelled with Knepper, who was helping to copy the music, punching him in the mouth; the event was a disaster, but poorly recorded shards were issued, the complete concert on a Blue Note CD '94. A deal with Impulse '63 led to collection Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and six-piece suite The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady (both with 10-11 pieces, the latter regarded as one of his best), and solo Mingus Plays Piano, all produced by Bob Thiele. He toured with small groups, always including the faithful Richmond; The Great Concert Of Charles Mingus '64 was an exciting Prestige three-LP set, later two CDs on Musidisc, made live in Paris with Dolphy, Clifford Jordan and Jaki Byard. A different concert from the same week in better sound was issued '96 as The Legendary Paris Concerts on Revenge, a label formed by Sue Mingus to undercut the bootleggers: her liner notes began, 'The first time I got caught stealing records was in Paris in 1991' (she went into shops and scooped up bootleg CDs). A Town Hall Concert 1964 with the same sextet redeemed him in that venue (the original Fantasy LP sleeve wrongly named the venue as Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis: My Favorite Quintet '65 was made there); Right Now: Live At The Jazz Workshop '64 on Fantasy with Jane Getz on piano included 'Meditations (For a Pair Of Wire Cutters)' with exciting work by Jordan, and 'New Fables' adding Handy. (The excellent Getz returned to the record shops after many years with trio, quartet and quintet tracks on No Relation '96 on Clarion Jazz.) Two-disc Mingus At Monterey '64 included an Ellington medley and another version of 'Meditations', an eleven-piece band with Callender on tuba. He walked out of the Monterey Festival '65 for his own obscure reasons; a two-disc Music Written For (And Not Heard At) Monterey, 1965 played at UCLA a week later, issued '66 by Charles Mingus Enterprises, which soon ran out of money; the master tapes were wiped by Capitol while in storage and a limited edition set dubbed from LPs was issued '84 on East Coasting, produced by his Sue with Fred Cohen: it contains material unavailable elsewhere and is a revealing document of Mingus at work.

The late '60s were lean years: he always worked hard, often changing his mind as he went, making things difficult for sidemen; his pride often got in the way, but the music had always come first. In '66 he was evicted by city marshals from a flat in NYC; much of his music was lost; his instruments were only rescued from the Welfare Dept flames by friends: the event made a coda to a grainy documentary film under way at the time, Mingus (by Thomas Reichman) capturing the nervous intensity in which he lived and worked. A period of semi-retirement followed; Fantasy provided some money in exchange for rights to Debut material. Blue Bird and a revived Pithecanthropus were made in Paris '70 by a sextet with Richmond, Byard, Charles McPherson and Bobby Jones (b 30 October 1928, Louisville KY) on reeds (on various labels, the latter later on Accord). His autobiography (with Nel King) Beneath The Underdog '71 was stream-of-consciousness fantasy, including reminiscences of Fats Navarro and others and a hilarious imaginary party attended by the major jazz critics: the book was allegedly edited from a trunkful of probably libellous stuff. He was acknowledged '70s as a living legend and a musical cornerstone, if never adequately rewarded; big-band set Let My Children Hear Music '71 on Columbia was produced by Macero, including 'Don't Be Afraid, The Clown's Afraid Too'; Charles Mingus And Friends '72 was a sold-out celebratory concert in Avery Fisher Hall NYC (Lincoln Center): 22 pieces included Gerry Mulligan, Gene Ammons, drummer Joe Chambers (b 25 June 1942, Stoneacre VA; own LPs on Muse, Phantom Of The City '92 on Candid), produced and conducted by Macero; Bill Cosby emcee'd and sang scat with Gillespie on 'E's Flat, Ah's Flat Too'. Both these events had been arranged by the faithful friend Sy Johnson (b 15 April 1930, New Haven CT; d 26 July 2022, NYC). The Lincoln Center event was finally issued complete on Columbia '97; unfortunately it is almost as shambolic as the Town Hall concert of '62: once again Mingus was still working on the music and there was indequate rehearsal time.

But a great last period was just around the corner, all the rest of Mingus's albums as a leader on Atlantic: Mingus Moves, Mingus At Carnegie Hall (later on Mobile Fidelity), Changes One and Changes Two '73-4 all had Richmond, George Adams, Don Pullen; nine pieces at Carnegie Hall included Handy, Kirk, Hamiet Bluiett; among trumpet players, Jon Faddis (b 24 July 1953, Oakland CA; toured mid-'87 with Dizzy Gillespie big band) had depped for an ailing Eldridge at the '72 concert while Jack Walrath was a steady member of the last sextet with Adams and Pullen, which recorded the Changes LPs, among the best of Mingus's late career, with notes by the faithful Hentoff. Cumbia And Jazz Fusion '77 is an exciting big-band film score (Music For 'Todo Modo' on the other side), a typically scathing, swinging Mingus vocal: 'Who says mama's little baby loves shortnin' bread?/That's some lie some white man upped and said!/Mama's little baby loves truffles! Caviar!...' Three Or Four Shades Of Blues '77 was uneven, with Philip Catherine and Larry Coryell on electric guitars, George Mraz (b 9 Sep. '44, Pisek, Czechoslovakia) helping on bass: Mingus was dying of a fatal wasting disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's disease, from the baseball star who died of it '41). He last recorded on a Lionel Hampton album of Mingus tunes late '77 on a Who's Who in Jazz series/label; the band included Hampton, Richmond, Mulligan, Walrath, recent Mingus discovery Ricky Ford on tenor; Me Myself An Eye early '78 on Atlantic had Mingus directing from a wheelchair, Eddie Gomez on bass; 20-plus pieces also including George Coleman, Ford, Knepper, Pepper Adams, both Chambers and Richmond on drums, with ace session player Steve Gadd added on sidelong 'Three Worlds Of Drums'. He went to his beloved Mexico, hoping for a cure, but the volcano was silenced, the passion living on the music.

Concerts are still issued, especially from Europe in the '60s, some of them bootlegs: Sextet In Berlin, Mingus In Stuttgart etc. An excellent critical biography was Mingus '82 by Brian Priestley. Among alumni and repertory groups, the Mingus Big Band made several albums, but a live audience on two-CD Live In Time '96 on Dreyfus Jazz helped heighten the excitement of new arrangements of Mingus classics and good playing from Randy Brecker, Robin Eubanks, Gary Bartz and many others. The Atlantic albums ('56-61) were collected on a 6-CD Rhino set Passions Of A Man '97.

In addition to her relentless campaign against bootleged MIngus records, Sue Mingus (b 2 April 1930; d 24 September 2022) guarded the Mingus flame for the rest of her life, running the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Guitars, the Mingus Orchestra, the 'Epitaph Orchestra', and associated organizations such as Jazz Workshop and the Let My Children Hear Music Foundation. Among her writings were the memoir, Tonight At Noon: A Love Story. She assembled all of Mingus's sheet music, two series of published arrangements, the first edition of Epitaph, and Charles Mingus: More Than A Fake Book, which finally made the music available to musicians worldwide, and more. She was also active in education, including an annual Charles Mingus High School Competition & Festival.