Born in a Nogales Army camp, Mingus moved to the Watts district of Los Angeles, where he grew up. The first music he heard was that of the church -- the only music his stepmother allowed around the house -- but one day, despite the threat of punishment, he tuned in to Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" on his father's crystal set, his first exposure to jazz. He tried to learn the trombone at six and then the cello, but became fed up with incompetent teachers and ended up on the double bass by the time he reached high school. His early teachers were Red Callender and an ex-New York Philharmonic bassist named Herman Reinshagen, and he studied composition with Lloyd Reese. A proto-third stream composition written by Mingus in 1940-1941, "Half-Mast Inhibition" (recorded in 1960), reveals an extraordinary timbral imagination for a teenager.
As a bass prodigy, Mingus performed with Kid Ory in Barney Bigard's group in 1942 and went on the road with Louis Armstrong the following year. He would gravitate toward the R&B side of the road later in the '40s, working with the Lionel Hampton band in 1947-1948, backing R&B and jazz performers, and leading ensembles in various idioms under the name Baron Von Mingus. He began to attract real national attention as a bassist for Red Norvo's trio with Tal Farlow in 1950-1951, and after leaving that group, he moved to New York and began working with several stellar jazz performers, including Billy Taylor, Stan Getz, and Art Tatum. He was the bassist in the famous 1953 Massey Hall concert in Toronto with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Max Roach, and he briefly joined his idol Ellington: he had the dubious distinction of being the only man Duke ever personally fired from his band.
Around this time, Mingus tried to make himself a rallying point for the jazz community. He founded Debut Records in partnership with his then-wife Celia and Max Roach in 1952, seeing to it that the label recorded a wide variety of jazz, from bebop to experimental music, until its demise in 1957. Among Debut's most notable releases were the Massey Hall concert, an album by Miles Davis, and several of his own sessions that traced the development of his ideas. He also contributed composed works to the Jazz Composers' Workshop from 1953 to 1955, and in 1955, he founded his own Jazz Workshop repertory group that found him moving away from strict notation toward a looser, dictated manner of composing.
By 1956, with the release of Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic), Mingus had clearly found himself as a composer and leader, creating pulsating, ever-shifting compendiums of jazz's past and present, feeling his way into the free jazz of the future. For the next decade, he would pour forth an extraordinary body of work for several labels, including key albums like The Clown, New Tijuana Moods, Mingus Ah Um, Blues and Roots and Oh Yeah; standards like "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," "Better Git It in Your Soul," "Haitian Fight Song," and "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," and extended works like Meditations on Integration and Epitaph. Through ensembles ranging in size from a quartet to an 11-piece big band, a procession of noted sidemen like Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean, J.R. Monterose, Jimmy Knepper, Roland Kirk, Booker Ervin, and John Handy would pass, with Mingus' commanding bass and volatile personality pushing his musicians further than some of them might have liked to go. The groups with the great Dolphy (heard live on Mingus at Antibes) in the early '60s might have been his most dynamic, and The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (1963), is an extended ballet for big band that captures the anguished/joyful split of Mingus' personality in full, and his passionately wild cry.
Mingus felt the lash of racial prejudice intensely -- which, combined with the frustrations of making it in the music business on his own terms, found its outlet in his music; some of his more unique titles were political in nature, such as "Fables of Faubus" (referring to the Arkansas governor who tried to keep Little Rock schools segregated), "Oh Lord, Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me," and "Remember Rockefeller at Attica." But he could also be wildly humorous, the most notorious example being "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats" (later shortened to "Gunslinging Bird").
Mingus was almost obsessive in his efforts to free himself from the economic hazards of the music business; so much so that it nearly undermined his sanity during the '60s (some of the liner notes for The Black Saint album were written by his psychologist, Dr. Edmund Pollock). He tried to compete with the Newport festivals by organizing his own Jazz Artists Guild in 1960 that purported to give musicians more control over their work, but that collapsed due to the by-then routine rancor that accompanied so many Mingus ventures, like his calamitous, self-presented New York Town Hall concert in 1962; a shorter-lived recording venture, Charles Mingus Records, in 1964-1965; his failure to find a publisher for his autobiography Beneath the Underdog, and other setbacks that broke his bank account and ultimately his spirit. He quit music almost entirely from 1966 until 1969, resuming performances in June 1969 only because he desperately needed money.
Financial angels in the forms of a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition, the publication of Beneath the Underdog in 1971, and the purchase of his Debut masters by Fantasy boosted Mingus' spirits, and a stimulating new Columbia album, Let My Children Hear Music, thrust him back into public view. By 1974, he had formed a new young quintet anchored by his loyal drummer Dannie Richmond and featuring Jack Walrath, Don Pullen, and George Adams, and more compositions came forth, including the massive, kaleidoscopic, Colombian-based "Cumbia and Jazz Fusion" that began its life as a film score.
Respect for him was growing, but time was running out. In the fall of 1977, Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), and by the following year, he was unable to play the bass. Though confined to a wheelchair, he nevertheless carried on, leading recording sessions and receiving honors at a White House concert on June 18, 1978. His last project was a collaboration with folk-rock singer Joni Mitchell, who wrote lyrics to Mingus' music and included samples of Mingus' voice on the record.
Since his death, Mingus' importance and fame have increased exponentially, thanks in large part to the determined efforts of Sue Mingus, his widow. A posthumous repertory group, Mingus Dynasty, was formed almost immediately after his death, and that concept expanded in 1991 into the exciting Mingus Big Band, which resurrected many of Mingus' most challenging scores. Epitaph was finally reconstructed, performed, and recorded in 1989 to general acclaim, and several box sets of portions of Mingus' output have been issued by Rhino/Atlantic, Mosaic, and Fantasy. Beyond re-creations, the Mingus influence can be heard on Branford Marsalis' early Scenes in the City album, and especially in the big-band writing of his brother Wynton. The Mingus blend of wildly colorful eclecticism solidly rooted in jazz history serves his legacy well in a future increasingly populated by young conservatives who want to pay their respects to tradition and try something different.
In the fall of 2018, BBE released the previously unissued archival, multi-disc recording Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert Gallery/46 Selden. Curator, DJ, and producer Amir Abdullah discovered five two-track master tapes in the care of Hermione Brooks -- widow of innovative Detroit drummer Roy Brooks, from his time as a member of the Charles Mingus Quintet -- that were recorded live during Mingus' week-long residency in February of 1973. They were broadcast live by drummer/producer and broadcaster Robert Bud Spangler on Detroit's public radio station, WDET FM. The Strata Gallery was housed in pianist Kenny and Barbara Cox's multi-purpose home for Strata Records at 46 Selden in what was then known as Cass Corridor. ~ Richard S. Ginell, Rovi
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