A Comprehensive Biography of Charles Mingus

Jazz leaders, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, are well known, but another jazz icon was Charles Mingus. One of the most important 20th century influences in American music, he was known as a pioneering bandleader, as well as a great bassist who could also play beautiful piano, while also taking on instruments such as the trombone and cello. A man who grew up loving music and had the talents to make it great!

Charles Mingus Jr.

On April 22, 1922, at an US Naval Camp in Nogales, Arizona, Harriet Sophia and Sgt. Charles Mingus Sr. had a son. They named him Charles Mingus Jr. and soon thereafter the family moved to the Watts district of Los Angeles where he grew up.

Charles mother would not allow outside music and so his first exposure was what he heard in church. The public school system offered basic training and it was there that he started with the trombone, but he soon moved on to the cello and double bass. Charles’ love of music led him to disobey his mother and using his father’s crystal radio set he tuned into a Duke Ellington program.

Mingus soon developed his skill and at the young age of seventeen, he wrote his first concert piece, "Half-Mast Inhibition." it wasn’t recorded until years later, with a 20-piece orchestra and conductor Gunther Schuller. It was the beginning of great things to come. He then began playing with the city’s Central Avenue Jazz as a bassist and composer. 

Great Things to Come

The 1940’s found Mingus playing with greats like Louis Armstrong's orchestra, Kid Ory and Lionel Hampton. This brought national attention. He became a bandleader and his bass skills were known throughout the music community. He was innovative and ultimately an important stand out among those in modern jazz. Ultimately, it was 1955’s “Revelations,” that gained Mingus, his high status as a composer. The Brandeis Festival of the Creative Arts presentation was a combination of Jazz and classical. A break away from the conventional, but it worked.

In the 1950’s he settled in New York, starting a recording company called, Debut Records, in which he recorded several of his workshop sessions. He also worked with Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor and others to record such things as the concert at Massey Hall in Toronto Canada with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Mingus was known for being a racist himself, but also felt racial prejudice very intensely, but if there was any real problem with Charles Mingus it was his temperament. He tended to be a controller and perfectionist. Mingus was known for physical assaults and creating such fear in band members that they quit. This gave Mingus the nickname “The Angry Man of Jazz.”

His prolific musical writings were full of soul and he drew from his black heritage, including gospel and hard bop. He focused on improvisation like the New Orleans Jazz parades of old. He recorded over a hundred albums and wrote over three hundred scores, some of his best pieces included: Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Erectus, Tijuana Moods, Sinner Lady, Mingus Dynasty, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion. Styles he fused into his own blend that made those in music stand up and take notice.

The Latter Days

The Slee Chair of Music was awarded to Mingus in 1971 and he spent a semester teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo. By 1977 he fell ill and was soon diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He also received an honorary degree from Brandeis and an award from Yale University.

Within a year he could no longer play bass and was in a wheelchair. He refused to hide away though and continued in leading recording sessions. In June of 1978, he received honors at a White House concert and in those last days he collaborated with folk singer Joni Mitchell. On January 5, 1979, Charles Mingus died in Mexico. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River in India and both New York City and Washington, D.C. honored him posthumously with a "Charles Mingus Day." The National Endowment for the Arts then set up grants in his name. Microfilms of his work were donated to the New York Public Library for. Today students regularly compete in the Charles Mingus High School Competition.

Biography The official biography page of Charles Mingus

The Beat Generation Includes Mingus quotes, as well as a multimedia and link directory

Charles Mingus: Fables of Faubus The political controversy raised over the album

BBC Mingus Profile A Jazz profile with related links.

Discography Project Collector's guides & discographies.

Goblin Magazine Interview with Mingus. 

Double Bass A focus on Mingus’ double bass skills.

New York Times article Library of Congress Buys Charles Mingus Archive

Hard Guy Charles Mingus's complex Columbia sessions.

Statistics General and family information about Mingus.