Charles Mingus is considered one of the most important figures in 20th century American music among such innovators as Charles Ives, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. He was a master contra-bassist, accomplished pianist, bandleader and composer.
Born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922 and raised in Watts, California, the Mingus family parentage included African American, German, Chinese and Native American. His earliest musical influences came from the mix of gospel singing from the local church and the jazz he heard on the radio, in particular the records of Duke Ellington. He started to develop his musical skills through the trombone and cello, but his future collaborator, Buddy Collette, would introduce him to the contra-bass in his teen years.
While his reputation grew as a bass prodigy, Mingus played with Lionel Hampton in addition to performing with the acclaimed trio of Red Norvo and Tal Farlow in California. In the mid-1950s he settled in New York where he built musical relationships with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Bud Powell. At the same time he formed his own publishing and recording label with Max Roach, Debut Records, to publish and record his bourgeoning repertoire of original music. Debut Records captured the “Greatest Jazz Concert Ever” live at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1953, featuring Mingus, Roach and bebop founders Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell.
Charles Mingus focused on collective improvisation, similar to the old-time New Orleans Jazz parades, paying particular attention to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. He believed in developing a dialogue in music, where the double bass, as the rest of the instruments, belonged in the conversation. Mingus’ compositions were soulful, emotionally dense and drew heavily from black gospel music, elements of free jazz and classical music. Yet Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own path in music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz.
He toured all over the world until 1977, when he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Two years later on January 5th, 1979, he fell victim to the disease in Cuernavaca, Mexico. His ashes were scattered on the Ganges River in Rishikesh, India.