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.
The 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 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 from 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.
... middle of paper ...
...es Two, with George Adams on tenor 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.
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