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Charles Mingus: A 40-Year Retrospective

Charles Mingus is one of the very few musicians who have made themselves incomparable in any way, in composition, in personality, in appearance, in performance, and in finesse.

Charles Mingus playing his bass in 1976.

Forty years ago, on January 5th, the world lost one of its most transcendent, enigmatic, and charismatic musicians, jazz bassists, composers, performers, and professor, Charles Mingus. With a career spanning almost four decades, he has cemented himself in in the development of American music in the mid-late 20th century and showed what it could become while being present in numerous corners of the world, from the underground nightclubs in Europe to his apartment in New York City to stages across the world, and even in schools such as local school University at Buffalo in Slee Hall.

Born on April 22, 1922, in a military base in Nogales, Arizona, Mingus was the son of a mixed father, who was half black and half white. This would later conflict his identity later in his life, making him both black and white (Which at the time meant two distinctly different things), one time stating that he’s “Too black to be white, but too white to be black.” Mingus grew up his entire youth surrounded by music, primarily gospel music from the church he attended to and mainly the works of jazz giant Duke Ellington. In his early teens, Mingus picked up the cello and learned the instrument for a few years until he came across the bass. Captivated, Mingus dropped cello and picked up the bass and would later get lessons from state orchestral players across the country. Mingus’s musical career would soon begin by touring with popular bands with Kid Ory, Lionel Hampton, and the immortal Louis Armstrong.

Mingus would soon find himself in New York City, where he founded the Jazz Workshop, a place where young and inspired musicians can record, learn, and perform their own works alongside with some classics with some of the leading musicians of the 50s. Throughout his career, Mingus would release numerous albums and perform in the productions of many others. Some of his most popular albums are “Pithecanthropus Erectus” (1956), “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” (1963), “Mingus At the Bohemia” (1955), and his most popular and notable album, “Mingus Ah Um” (1959). 

Like most musicians then and now, his career was fueled with struggle. At one point, in 1962, Mingus faced a tremendous disaster. He held a concert of his jazz band but with a twist, they would perform as if they were in the process of recording a new track. But this wasn’t any ordinary track, this was a composition full of virtuosity, a chaotic and captivating piece of music that nobody was prepared for. This was, as Mingus said, his “master symphony,” which would later become one of his most famous works. Overall, the concert was a failure, the audience left, none of the musician’s were prepared for Mingus’s virtuosic and strange parts, and it all crumbled as the performance went on. This devastated Mingus, and would be one of the multiple times that drove him into a depressed state. Mingus wouldn’t perform, nor write for many years, in one instance he gave up on music and became a wedding photographer in New York. In another instance in 1966, Mingus was evicted from his New York apartment and later arrested for suspected drug use after a hypodermic needle was found in his possession. On the day of his arrest, while being escorted out by police, Mingus responded to an interviewer who asked if he believed he was persecuted because he was a jazz musician. Mingus responded, “No, I really think I’m being helped… I don’t know, I think that maybe they just didn’t get to see what’s going on the so-called ‘jazz addition in life.’ So maybe this is the police really helping me I don’t know.” 

“He could be as calm and as sweet as a two month old baby, and two hours later he could explode like Vesuvius, you know, and everything in between.”

Gunther Schuller

Mingus would hop around the world during his dynamic career. In 1971, Mingus was awarded as the Slee Professor of Music, at would teach composition at the University of Buffalo for a  semester, a fun fact about the musician and a historic moment of the local university’s past.

Nearing the end of his life, Mingus was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gherig’s Disease. As the condition ate away at his body, Mingus lost the virtuosic bass playing you would hear in his earlier tracks. By the time he lost any physical ability in his legs and arms, he would sing and whistle melodies and ideas into a tape recorder that his last of many wives, Sue Mingus, would help record. Charles Mingus succumbed to ALS and passed away peacefully on January 5th, 1979, in Cuernavaca, Mexico; his death shocked the world and the musicians that have worked with him for decades.

But what makes Charles Mingus stand out from the crowd besides his associated acts and his life? Well most commonly associated with Mingus is his temper and personality. Most people know Mingus as a hot-headed and incredibly dynamic character. In the words of Mingus’s close friend, Gunther Schuller “He could be as calm and as sweet as a two month old baby, and two hours later he could explode like Vesuvius, you know and everything in between.” In an eyewitness account, Mingus was performing at a small nightclub in New York City and got into an argument with the pianist and later other players. Mingus reportedly got so furious he put his hand into the piano and ripped out its strings and left the club and performed with another group. Mingus, asides from his volatile temperament, was also known to have periods of severe depression, from the deaths of his close friends to his previously mentioned failure of a concert, but also very charismatic.

But what’s mostly overlooked about Mingus is his music and style. Mingus was on the forefront of jazz, avant-garde, and American music all together. His music churns a visceral struggle with limited release, like a bomb that is about to explode, with the only problems being that you cannot disable the bomb, and that the bomb is increasingly getting bigger without any signs of it stopping its growth. World renowned jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis describes what Mingus did with music in probably the most easily understandable way in the documentary Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, “I feel that he’s doing what all the musicians try to do and that is to always reexamine the basic elements, the things that give whatever the particular art form is its greatest power.” And its greatest power he gave. Mingus, who throughout his life studied the works of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, soul and gospel music, and even Igor Stravinsky and the early works of Arnold Schoenberg, was able to integrate them all together, make it work, and make it a sound of his own. 

Charles Mingus is one of the very few musicians who have made themselves incomparable in any way, in composition, in personality, in appearance, in performance, and in finesse. Charles Mingus was many things, a composer, a band leader, a writer, a lover, a fighter, a caring human, and a volatile one, and a charismatic and enigmatic one as well. At rest, but strained. In your face, but laid back. Sweet, but explosive. Beyond this world, but human. Decades after his peaceful death, after his ashes were spread across the Ganges River in India, his music still lives and breathes. Through various bands such as the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, and other large jazz bands that perform his music multiple times. Mingus wrote an autobiography called “Beneath the Underdog” (1971), and in there reads a quote that perfectly sums up Mingus’s relationship between himself and music as we approach his 98th birthday this year: “My music is evidence of my soul’s will to live.”

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