Charles Mingus is best known as a multi-talented musician whose colleagues included celebrities such
as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. His skills included composition and
conducting as well as notable talent in both the piano and string bass. Arguably his greatest claim to
fame was his “Renaissance Man” quality – his ability to adapt and master all aspects of the jazz genre
in his time.
Born 1922 in Nogales, Arizona, and raised in Watts, California, Charles Mingus grew up singing in
church choirs and school groups. Formally trained in music composition by the famed Lloyd Reese,
he also studied piano and the double bass. His most famous teacher was H. Rheinshagen, first bassist
of the New York Philharmonic, who taught Charles for five years. The inception of Mingus’ talents
may have been birthed in the classics and Christian gospel roots, but it was in the exposure to jazz
that he found his true calling. Early on in his professional career, Mingus toured with bands like Louis
Armstrong and Lionel Hampton and drew heavily from their influence.
Before long, Mingus stood out as a jazz pioneer of a new age. Having written more than 300 scores
and recorded more than 100 albums, his pinnacle came at the presentation of his youthful work
“Revelations” at the 1955 Brandeis Festival of Creative Arts. The piece melded classical and jazz styles
into something hitherto unseen and set Mingus apart as one of the leading jazz composers of that age.
After being awarded the Slee Chair of Music in 1971, Mingus settled down to teaching composition and
publishing his autobiography Beneath the Underdog. He spent only one semester as a teacher at the
State University of New York and his book gained such great success after being published as a Bantam
paperback in 1972 that it was reprinted twice after his death, in 1980 and 1991.
Mingus signed a second contract with Columbia Records in 1972 due to the popularity of his work,
particularly among ballet companies. Ballet choreographer Alvin Ailey even created an hour-long
program called “The Mingus Dances” which were performed in 1972 by the Robert Joffrey Ballet
From the 1960s until his diagnosis with Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis at the end of 1977, Mingus
actively toured worldwide. Wheelchair bound after his diagnosis, he wrote music on paper and
practiced until his nerve disease took his ability to play and write. Even then, Mingus sang his last
pieces of work into tape recorders and enlisted aides in capturing his prose. He died January 5, 1979 at
age 56. He is considered a jazz legend and was honored with a “Charles Mingus Day” in New York City
and Washington, D.C. His own opinion of his works was humbler by far; he said his abilities as a bassist
were the result of hard work but that his talent for composition came from God.
Mingus’ work has been catalogued by the National Endowment of the Arts and the microfilms have
since been given to the Music Division of the New York Public Library where they are available to
the public for study. This is a unique honor for a jazz composer, as this is an honor typically awarded
only to writers of classical music. His masterpiece “Epitaph” (which is over 4,000 measures long and
requires two hours to perform) was discovered during the cataloguing process and premiered at Alice
Tully Hall in concert conducted by Gunther Schuller on June 3, 1989, ten years after Mingus’ death.