Charles Mingus

Home » History Greatest People » Charles Mingus

Born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922 and raised in Watts, California, his earliest musical influences came from the church– choir and group singing– and from “hearing Duke Ellington over the radio when he was eight years old.”

He studied double bass and composition in a formal way while absorbing vernacular music from the great jazz masters, first-hand.

In 1971 Mingus was awarded the Slee Chair of Music and spent a semester teaching composition at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In the same year his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, was published by Knopf.

In 1972 it appeared in a Bantam paperback and was reissued after his death, in 1980, by Viking/Penguin and again by Pantheon Books, in 1991.

In 1972 he also re-signed with Columbia Records.

His music was performed frequently by ballet companies, and Alvin Ailey choreographed an hour program called “The Mingus Dances” during 1972 collaboration with the Robert Joffrey Ballet Company.

Mingus received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Smithsonian Institute, and the Guggenheim Foundation (two grants).

He also received an honorary degree from Brandeis and an award from Yale University.

At a memorial following Mingus’ death, Steve Schlesinger of the Guggenheim Foundation commented that Mingus was one of the few artists who received two grants and added: “I look forward to the day when we can transcend labels like jazz and acknowledge Charles Mingus as the major American composer that he is.” The New Yorker wrote: “For sheer melodic and rhythmic and structural originality, his compositions may equal anything written in western music in the twentieth century.”

In 1952 Mingus co-founded Debut Records with Max Roach so he could conduct his recording career as he saw fit. The name originated from his desire to document unrecorded young musicians.

Despite this, the best-known recording the company issued was of the most prominent figures in bebop.

On May 15, 1953, Mingus joined Dizzy Gillespie, Parker, Bud Powell, and Roach for a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, which is the last recorded documentation of the two lead instrumentalists playing together.

After the event, Mingus chose to overdub his barely audible bass part back in New York; the original version was issued later.

The two 10″ albums of the Massey Hall concert (one featured the trio of Powell, Mingus, and Roach) were among Debut Records’ earliest releases.

Mingus may have objected to the way the major record companies treated musicians, but Gillespie once commented that he did not receive any royalties “for years and years” for his Massey Hall appearance.

In 1988, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts made possible the cataloging of Mingus compositions, which were then donated to the Music Division of the New York Public Library for public use.

In 1993, The Library of Congress acquired Mingus’s collected papers—including scores, sound recordings, correspondence, and photos—in what they described as “the most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz in the Library’s history”.

Mingus’s autobiography also serves as an insight into his psyche, as well as his attitudes about race and society.

Autobiographic accounts of abuse at the hands of his father from an early age, being bullied as a child, his removal from a white musician’s union, and grappling with disapproval while married to white women and other examples of the hardship and prejudice.