Charles Mingus was one of the greatest American jazz bassists and composers, pianists and bandleaders. He combined free jazz with classical music in his compositions, at the same time paying much attention to improvisation. Mingus was also a strict and demanding bandleader whose musicians later obtained success in career. Apart from musical preferences, he was also a civil rights activist. During his life, Mingus often faced racial discrimination, social inequality and injustice. All these factors influenced his position and behavior. Mingus was regarded as an impulsive and stubborn person, and such behavior often had negative consequences. Mingus played a crucial role in the history of American jazz. Together with Duke Ellington, he is regarded as one of the most important contributors to American jazz. This essay consists of eight pages and focuses its attention on biography, life and career of Charles Mingus. It describes the most important works of the musician, their main peculiarities and contribution to the American jazz music.
Charles Mingus (1922 –1979) was a famous and influential American jazz bassist, songwriter, guitarist, pianist and bandleader. He was also known as civil rights activist who came out against racial discrimination and injustice. Compositions of Mingus absorbed the influence of hard bop and sometimes drew on traces of free jazz and classical music. Nevertheless, he tried to create his own style of jazz music. Mingus was a creative bandleader; he recruited young unrenowned musicians who eventually gained popularity. Many musicians passed through his bands and then achieved success in their professional career.
Mingus concentrated on collective improvisation that resembled the old New Orleans jazz parades. Moreover, he liked to observe personality of each member of his bands in order to understand how they interacted with each other. His compositions are also played today by his followers, including such ensembles as Mingus Big Band and Mingus Dynasty. Moreover, high school students, who master his secrets of creation and improvisation, often take part in the musical competition named after Charles Mingus.
Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona in 1922. However, he spent his early childhood years in Watts, California. He was the third child in a family. Mingus’s mother died soon after his birth. Charles and his older sisters were raised by their stepmother. His mother was of Chinese and English origin, while his father was the illegitimate child of a black farmhand and a white granddaughter of his Swedish employer (Santoro, 2001). Two Mingus’s sisters studied violin and piano, while his stepbrother was a guitarist. Obviously, these conditions influenced Charles as a future musician. Church music, in particular, choir singing, originally formed Mingus’s outlook since his stepmother encouraged him to listen to it. However, a genuine passion for music was evoked by Duke Ellington whom Charles liked to listen to over the radio.
Mingus studied trombone and cello, although he was unable to play cello in professional way. In those years, it was very difficult for a black musician to make a career in classical music and cello was not considered as an instrument for jazz music. In spite of this, the cello was an object of Mingus’s affection. In Beneath the Underdog, Charles Mingus says that he did not begin learning bass until Buddy Collette invited him to his band on condition that Mingus be the bass player of this project (Mingus, 1971). In the late 1930s, Mingus studied bass with Red Callender, but had precious few means of subsistence to continue the education. Themes of racism, justice and discrimination influenced his music (Horton, 2007). Charles Mingus studied double bass for five years with Herman Reinshagen, who was the leading bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and practiced compositional skills with Lloyd Reese.
In the 40s, Mingus was touring with Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and others. The first professional job of Charles Mingus was music cooperation with the clarinetist Barney Bigard. By 1945, he was recording in Los Angeles in a band of Russell Jacquet, and the same year he was working in Hollywood, in an ensemble led by Howard McGhee. In the late 1940s, this virtuosic man played with the band of Lionel Hampton who recorded a number of Mingus’s pieces.
In 1951, Mingus settled in New York where he played and recorded with famous American musicians, such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and others. In 1950 and 1951, a trio of Charles Mingus, Red Norvo and Tal Farlow achieved considerable fame, but Mingus had to leave the band because of racial disputes. Charles was a member of Ellington’s band in 1953, but later he was fired because of his bad temper. At the beginning of 1950s, Mingus played gigs with Charlie Parker whose compositions had a great influence on him, although he disliked some of Parker’s habits. Charles Mingus was also a skilled pianist and could have made a career playing the piano. By the mid-50’s, he founded his own recording companies to record and protect his compositions. For instance, in 1952, Mingus co-founded Debut Records with Max Roach. In 1953, Charles Mingus, Dizzie Gillespie, Bud Powell and other musicians performed in Toronto. This concert was the last documentation of the two prominent musicians playing together. Mingus also organized a group called the Jazz Workshop, which included 8–10 musicians. This project allowed young composers to record and perform their new pieces. Pepper Adams, Charles McPherson, Booker Ervin and other notorious musicians joined this ensemble. Mingus managed to turn the participants of this group into a concerted professional team that showed amazing innovational skills. This very project preceded free jazz.
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His works are extraordinary and creative. Mingus’s albums include Pithecanthropus Erectus, Mingus Ah Um, The Clown, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Let My Children Hear Music, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, Tijuana Moods, etc. Charles Mingus recorded more than a hundred albums and created more than three hundred scores. He wrote his first concert piece named “Half-Mast Inhibition” at the age of seventeen, although it was recorded only twenty years after. It was presented at the Brandeis Festival in 1955 and helped him to gain fame as a top-level jazz composer of that time.
The decade, which encompassed the 1950s and 1960s, is considered the most productive in the career of Charles Mingus. New notable albums and compositions appeared for different record labels. In 1956, he released a new album Pithecanthropus Erectus, which is regarded as his first substantial work as composer and a bandleader. Despite the fact that he had recorded about ten albums by that time, they did not achieve much recognition. Mingus stated that this was his first album where he taught arrangements to the musicians by ear instead of putting harmonies in writing (Huey, n.d. b). The title song is a tone poem, which lasts about ten minutes and describes the rise of man from hominid origins to his later decadence. A section of this piece was free of structure. The song is characterized by a haunting theme, which is broken up by frantic interludes, becoming darker as the spirit of man decays. According to The Penguin Guide to Jazz, which gave the album a maximum four-star rating, it is “one of the truly great modern jazz albums” (Cook & Morton, 2008). The genre of the album is post-bob.
Another jazz album The Clown, featuring the narration of a humorist Jean Shepherd, was recorded and released in 1957. A deluxe edition of this album was released in 2000.
In 1959, Charles Mingus recorded one of the most famous albums called Mingus Ah Um, released by Columbia Records. The album includes such well-known songs as “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (a reference to an American saxophonist and clarinetist Lester Young who had died before Mingus Ah Um was recorded), the vocal version of “Fables of Faubus” (a complaint against segregation; in this particular case, Mingus blamed Arkansas governor O. E. Faubus), “Open Letter to Duke” and others.
One more important and notorious album created by Charles Mingus was Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. It was recorded and issued in 1961. It was the only album of the quartet, which consisted of Charles Mingus, Ted Curson, Eric Dolphy, and Dannie Richmond. The album also comprises the version of the above-mentioned “Fables of Faubus”, which is called “Original Faubus Fables” with Mingus and Richmond’s singing. Another composition “What Love?” was recorded on the basis of two popular songs “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to the instrumental accompaniment of Ted Curson and Eric Dolphy.
In 1963, another album of Mingus called The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady was released on Impulse! Records. This 39-minute work was partially written as a ballet and was divided into several sections. Music critics regarded this long play as one of the greatest Mingus’s masterpieces, which was highly rated on the lists of the best music albums. The genre of this album is avant-garde jazz. Steve Huey, reviewer of Allmusic, characterized the album as “one of the greatest achievements in orchestration by any composer in jazz history” (Huey, n.d. a). Charles Mingus is the author and composer of all the songs from this album.
The same year Mingus recorded a new long play called Mingus Plays Piano. It is a solo album where he plays piano and does not participate in the ensemble. The album includes such works as “I Can’t Get Started”, “Body and Soul”, “Memories of You” and others. This solo work was released in 1997.
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Charles Mingus made a break in the late 1960s, at the beginning of the 1970s. Then in 1974, he created a quintet, which included Mingus himself, Richmond, Pullen, Walrath, and Adams. They recorded such popular albums as Changes One (1974) and Changes Two (1975).
Another famous album written by Charles Mingus was Cumbia & Jazz Fusion. It was recorded in 1977. It combines Colombian music (the influence of Colombian cumbia) and traditional jazz. The album consists of two compositions, which were written for the film Todo Modo.
Charles Mingus in Paris: The Complete America Session was recorded and released in 1970. It consists of two albums recorded in 1970 in Paris.
Mingus Moves was released in 1973. It is one of the last works of Mingus. He invited three new musicians to record this album: Pullen, Hampton, and Adams. This album is not considered one of the best Mingus’s creations. However, it features several prominent compositions. “Canon” is a theme song satiated with a spiritual nature. “Opus 3” is based on one of the previous Mingus’s compositions called “Pithecanthropus Erectus” (1957) in which stable meter is absent. Other remarkable compositions include “Opus 4”, “Moves”, “Wee”, and “Flowers for a Lady”.
Apart from studio albums, Charles Mingus also recorded live albums during concerts. Mingus at the Bohemia was one of the first live albums; it was recorded during a concert at the Caf? Bohemia in 1955. The first composition of this album “Jump, Monk” is dedicated to the late Thelonious Monk. Playing this song, Mingus tried to reproduce the moves of the legendary musician. This piece contains peculiar melodic and compositional figures and techniques. In another song “Serenade in Blue”, the melody often alternates from slow to fast pace. “Work Song” has some features of the soul jazz and depicts the history of the black workers. The song is mostly depressive, but still there is a feeling of hope. “Septemberly” includes two songs: “September in the Rain” and “Tenderly”.
The Complete Town Hall Concert is a concert album, which was recorded in 1962 at The Town Hall of New York City. This album did not receive much success. Allmusic awarded it only three stars. Other live concert albums of Charles Mingus are The Charles Mingus Quintet & Max Roach (1955), Jazz Portraits: Mingus in Wonderland (1959), Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy Cornell 1964 (1964), The Great Concert of Charles Mingus (1964), Mingus at Monterey (1964), Mingus at Carnegie Hall (1974) and others.
In 1971, Mingus received the Slee Chair of Music and was teaching composition at the University of Buffalo during semester. Soon after this experience, his autobiography Beneath the Underdog was published. Mingus toured throughout the USA, Europe, Japan and other countries until he faced serious problems with health. In 1977, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Mingus was confined to a wheelchair and was unable to play the instrument. He continued composing, although he could not write on paper and compose on the piano. Before his death, he supervised several recordings. During his professional career, Mingus received a number of grants and awards. He died in 1979 at the age of 56 in Mexico where he had come for treatment. Mingus’s ashes were scattered by his wife in the Ganges River.
Charles Mingus was known as impulsive, stubborn person with difficult character, he was never short of words. Sometimes his occasional explosive temper was directed at representatives of his band and audience. As his colleagues mentioned, Mingus was physically large and even frightening when he expressed anger or dissatisfaction. He even got the nickname The Angry Man of Jazz. Sometimes he suffered from depression, which interrupted his professional and creative activity. Mingus always got what he wanted from the members of his band and demanded that they do even more.
Mingus wrote the autobiography Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus, which was published in 1971 by Alfred A. Knopf. He worked on this autobiography for more than twenty years. The book covered different facts of Mingus’s life, which had never been mentioned before. Apart from his musical career, Mingus described his intimate life and sexual experience. He confessed to have more than thirty affairs during his life, which did not even include his wives. Mingus claimed that he had a short career as a pimp, though there were no proofs of this statement. He also paid attention to racial and social problems, which he experienced throughout his life. He suffered from being abused as a child and went through other kinds of prejudice.
After his death, the music of Charles Mingus is still being performed. The Mingus Big Band is an ensemble, which celebrates the music of Mingus. This band is based in New York City. The ensemble has been performing every Monday at Jazz Standard since 2008. Moreover, it gives performances not only in the USA, but also in Europe. This band obtained six Grammy nominations. In 2011, they won a Grammy. Apart from the Mingus Big Band, there are the Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Orchestra, which are organized by his widow.
Mingus’s masterpiece Epitaph takes more than two hours of performance. It was released in 1990. It is considered to be one of the most important and greatest masterworks in the history of jazz. There are two versions of this work; the first one was created in 1962, while the second one was remade in 1989. Mingus called it Epitaph because he realized that the album would not be performed during his lifetime.
During his life, Charles Mingus received many grants and awards. He was awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Smithsonian Institute, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He also received a degree from Brandeis and an award from Yale University. In 1993, The Library of Congress purchased his collected papers, including compositions, scores and photos. In 1995, The US Postal Service printed a stamp in Mingus’s honor. Susan Mingus, the widow of Charles, published several educational books about her late husband: Charles Mingus: More Than a Fake Book and Charles Mingus: More Than a Play-Along etc.
Charles Mingus was an extremely gifted musician and composer. He is considered as one of the greatest jazz composers in history next to Duke Ellington. Mingus is often regarded as a successor of Ellington whom he admired very much. In his compositions, Mingus expressed glee, anxiety, and anger. His music combined gospel, free jazz, and classical music. He established a shift from bebop and helped pave the way to avant-garde jazz. One of the peculiar techniques of Mingus’s composing talent was creation of rhythmic contrasts between parts of the composition. Another technique, which was used by Mingus, was layering a number of parts to make tension. He played a very important role in the development of jazz in the USA. His music is still performed not only in America, but in other parts of the world, being an ambrosia for both melomanes and creative artists.