Charles Mingus was born on 22 April 1922 in Los Angeles, California. His father joined the army in 1915 after a frustrating career in the post office. His mother died only five months after Mingus was born.
Times were hard in Los Angeles, as more and more poor people migrated into the city, and the small suburb of Watts turned into a black ghetto inside of a single decade. But young Mingus was pretty much protected from all the social pressure. His family was basically middle-class. His father has remarried, and Mingus' step mother had soon taken an active role in his education. Mamie Carson Mingus encouraged her step-children to take an interest in music. This has soon taken shape in the form of violin and piano lessons for Mingus’ older sisters.
Apart from the sound of his sisters practicing, the only music allowed in the house was religious music picked up through the radio. But the radio also opened Mingus for African-American music, namely jazz and blues. The trips to the local church were also musical as well as spiritual. The yelling and shouting in the church were actually not so different from the sounds of a big band. Mingus had also taken to the piano, just by lifting the lid and trying the keys, and it had become clear to his parents that he had a good ear. At age six Mingus was given a trombone. After a few years of frustrating musical experiences, it was suggested that Mingus pick up the cello. As his interest in jazz grew, especially after listening to Duke Ellington on the radio, he became convinced that the bass was his instrument.
Mingus' first bassist role model was Joe Comfort, who played with Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole. Comfort lived in the same neighborhood, and was playing gigs with the musicians that Mingus grew up with. However, true inspiration came from meeting Red Callender, who came from the east coast and played with the likes of Louis Armstrong. 16-year old Mingus became a devout follower and good friend. The sound that would later identify Mingus, full yet sharp, comes directly from Callender's influence. Another major influence on all young bassists of that period is the work of Jimmy Blanton with the Duke Ellington orchestra, which had broken new ground in terms of the exposure of the bass as a solo instrument and its unique role in Ellington’s compositions.
Around this period Mingus began composing and arranging for his school band. This later became almost an obsession, as Mingus would sit and write music for hours on end, and then go and have it played by his friends. He was already trying to work out alternative techniques of working with his musicians. He would teach them his music by playing it for them, and would take a more active role in directing the band.
By the end of his teens, Mingus had become proficient in music theory, and had a vast knowledge of music, classical and jazz. Among his influences are Duke, Wagner, Strauss and Debussy. This becomes evident in the fact that most of Mingus' music is programmatic and quite on the romantic side.
Staying on the west coast, Mingus began playing gigs and on recording dates. His first high profile exposure was on a recording with the Illinois Jacquet band. In this recording a few solo spots showed Mingus to be an innovative bassist, playing double stops, jumping octaves, counter melodies and with a sound that was well ahead of his time.
While developing his own style, Mingus was still composing and trying to keep his own band together by doing gigs. This turned out to be quite hard and depressed Mingus almost to the point of being institutionalized.
Around 1947 Mingus started playing more luxurious gigs, and finally had been given a steady job with the Lionel Hampton band, where he was featured as a soloist. This led to more and more people calling him, a better income and more motivation to play his own music.
By 1953 he has advanced well beyond Blanton and Pettiford, whose solos were melodic but always easy on the left-hand fingers. Mingus, while never really taken with bebop, had a major inspiration from Charlie Parker in terms of the improvisational concept. This included "crazy" jumps, more rhythmic variety, anticipation of harmonic changes and displays of virtuosity among other things. This approach implemented on the bass may sound strange or "wrong" at times. But it is what spread Mingus' name as an innovative and unique musician. Of special notice also is his right-hand technique, plucking the strings almost like a guitar. Percy Heath attests that Mingus was the first bassist he saw who played repetitive notes with alternating fingers, and a special Mingus feature was his famous pizzicato tremolo. This technical approach was later further developed by the likes of Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro, Richard Davis and Eddie Gomez.
His first major breakthrough as a bandleader/composer was the record The Clown, which included Haitian Fight Song, an extended modal blues, with a masterfully-done bass solo as an introduction, which already showed the mature Mingus style. This piece also included shouting and collective improvisation. The latter would recur in many other Mingus compositions. Reincarnation of a Love Bird includes an "open" section in the beginning and end with changes of tempo and strong use of dissonances. The composition The Clown is narrated and includes long sections of open improvisation, where the instruments comment on the story told by the narrator. The dancing waltz rhythm would also proved to be important in later works.
By 1960, the Mingus band included Eric Dolphy on alto saxophone, Ted Curson on trumpet and Danny Richmond on drums. A recording named Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, recorded on Mingus' own record label, shows the affinity Mingus had to the Blues, and may be seen as the high point of Mingus' collaboration with Dolphy (it may be argued that Dolphy's best playing was done in the Mingus band). The record starts with Folk Forms, which is an open blues played by four soloists: bass, drums, sax and trumpet. For most of the piece the musicians play in couples and trios with occasional solos. There's basically no accompaniment and each instrument plays its own melody. Mingus' lines, while outlining the harmony and imitating the other instruments, focus on Blues licks and take a lot of rhythmic freedom. Fables of Faubus includes shouting and singing, while the bipolar What Love? (based on the chord changes to What is This Thing Called Love?) includes frequent changes of tempo, free flowing improvisations and a long Mingus/Dolphy duet towards the end. The last piece on the record, All the Things You Could Be by Now if Zigmund Freud’s Wife was Your Mother, which takes another jazz standard (All the Things You Are) as its starting point, is a virtuoso showcase for the four musicians, swinging hard and fast, and alternating between 4/4 rhythm and 6/4 rhythm, another recurring motive in later works such as Better Get It In Your Soul and Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.
Among later works of special notice are Oh Yeah, which features Mingus mainly on piano, and Let My Children Hear Music and The Soles of the Fisherman's Wife, which include orchestral works. On Oh Yeah, Mingus comes back to the blues and spiritual music, including shouting and open Blues cadences. The last piece on the record, Passions of a Man is a collage of spoken words in Spanish and sound effects. Let My Children Hear Music goes a step further and uses pieces of musique concrete - recorded sounds along with the music. All of the pieces on the record are programmatic, i.e. they tell a story in music, and the orchestral arrangements amplify the romantic trait in Mingus' music.
The music of Black Saint and Sinner Lady was originally conceived as a ballet, but as this has fallen through, Mingus released it on a record. The music uses dark blocks of sound which repeat a few figures incessantly, serving as a jumping point for the alto sax solo. The incessant and violent repetition of the short phrases, the sharp sounds of the horns, and the accentuation of the lower registers is also typical to Mingus' music.
Maybe the climax of Mingus career as a composer came in 1974 with the release of Changes One and changes Two, with George Adams on tenor saxophone and avant-garde pianist Don Pullen. The full power of Mingus' music with its frequent tempo changes and structural irregularity was finally completely realized. Especially the two center pieces in both albums, Sue's Changes and Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Silk Blue, show this clearly. Although the bass part is less pronounced then in earlier years, owing to Mingus' deteriorating health, the other players more than make up for this, and render his music in a way which is true to his aesthetics.
Mingus died on 5 January 1979 from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. In the last two years of his life he has lost the ability to play and later the use of his whole body. Mingus' last works as a composer are songs he composed for Joni Mitchell by singing into a tape recorder. He was honored by many tributes after his death from his fellow musicians. Of special notice is the Epitaph project, led by Gunther Schuller which, while in my humble opinion is not very successful, tries to recapture the special spirit in Mingus' music. Today the music of Mingus is still being played by the Mingus Big Band, formed by his widow Sue Graham Mingus.