Charles Mingus

Biography

Charles Mingus was a triple threat — he was uniquely gifted as a bass player, as a composer, and as a bandleader. It should be added that he was also highly individual as a personality. Brought up by his father and stepmother, he received mixed messages that were typified by the father worshiping at the local African Methodist Episcopal chapel while the stepmother preferred to take young Charles to the Holiness Church. The gospel music Mingus heard at the Holiness Church was one of the earliest influences on his own later performance style, but as a pre-teenager, he also discovered the charismatic sounds of Duke Ellington and, not long after, the work of twentieth-century European composers such as Stravinsky, Debussy, and Richard Strauss. In his teens he started to receive reliable musical training, from bassist Red Callender and from trumpeter-composer Lloyd Reese, and by his early twenties he was recognized as a promising player, working with Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Lionel Hampton.

Early compositions, recorded while he was still on the West Coast, presented a variety of separate approaches, but Mingus also had ambitions to be a successful songwriter like Ellington; hence his ballads such as "Bemoanable Lady" and the famous "Weird Nightmare". Moving to New York in the early 1950s, he played for a while with Charlie Parker, got to know Thelonious Monk and Lester Young, and wrote tributes to all three of them. He also ran his own record label for a while and became much more actively involved in the growing civil rights movement, inspiring his collaboration with poet Langston Hughes.

Widely admired for his innovative bass playing, he gained an even wider reputation with his own groups from the late 1950s onward. In the process, he discovered some excellent interpreters who, like those in Ellington’s bands, gave their best shot at bringing his ideas to life. Even now, longstanding sidemen like trombonist Jimmy Knepper and drummer Dannie Richmond are often considered to have done their best work with him. Others who stayed for shorter periods, such as alto saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Charlie Mariano or tenor saxophonists Booker Ervin and Yusef Lateef, left an indelible mark on Mingus’s music, just as he left his mark on theirs.

Sadly, Mingus died of the wasting disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1979. But by the early 1960s, he had already reached a peak of individuality that can never by forgotten or underestimated.

Brian Priestley

Excerpted from: Charles Mingus’s Finest Hour