Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



By the mid-1950s Mingus struck a chord of independence. He formed his own label, Debut,

to protect and document his enlarging repertoire of original music. He also formed

the Jazz Composer’s Workshop, a cooperative for musicians—all as a way to avoid

the commercialism of the music industry. The Workshop was a way to enable young musicians

to have their compositions performed in concert and on recordings.



CDs of Charles Mingus

Mingus Ah Um (CD 1990)  / Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956,1990)  / The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady (1963, 1995)  

Blues and Roots (1959, 1990)  / Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (1960, 2000)  /  Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963, 1995)

Mingus Dynasty (1959, 1999)   /   Let My Children Hear Music (1971, 1992)   /   Epitaph (1990)   /  Cumbia & Jazz Fusion (1976, 1994)

The Clown (1957, 1999)  / Tijuana Moods (2001)

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Charles Mingus 


Composer, Bandleader, Bassist, Pianist


Mingus Bio

Charles Mingus, Jr., born on 22 April 1922 on a military base in Nogales, Arizona, is one of the foremost figures in twentieth century American music as composer, bandleader, bassist, and pianist.

He grew up in Watts, California. He lived with his religious stepmother and thus his earliest musical influences came from the church—choir and group singing. Risking punishment at eight years old, he turned his father’s radio onto Duke Ellington’s “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” This first exposure of jazz had a strong influence on him.

Mingus began the study of music at an early age. From six until about sixteen, he tried to learn the trombone; but dissatisfied with poor teachers, he took up the cello and by high school the double bass. He studied the double bass first with Red Callendar and then five years with Herman Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic; and studied also compositional techniques with the legendary Lloyd Reese. These years of study laid a foundation for his technique. The young Mingus also absorbed first hand the vernacular music from the great jazz masters.

Mingus began as a “serious” composer, as steeped in Stravinsky and Schoenberg as in Ellington. Although he wrote his first concert piece, “Half-Mast Inhibition,” when he was seventeen years old, it was not recorded until twenty years later by a 22-piece orchestra with Gunther Schuller conducting. 

Early Professional Experience & Influences

In the 1940s, Mingus played with a number of well-known musicians. When he was 20 years old, Mingus had a professional stint with Kid Ory in Barney Bigard’s group (1942). The following year he was touring with Louis Armstrong. During the mid-40s Mingus made a move toward rhythm and blues and in 1947 began work with Lionel Hampton’s big band, where he made a name as a jazz musician, writing and playing.

 In his autobiography Hamp (1989), Lionel Hampton wrote, “For a while in 1948, for example, I had a band that included both Wes Montgomery on guitar and Charlie Mingus on bass. I brought Mingus from California when nobody wanted him to play. I brought him to New York.” 

During the Hampton period, Mingus also led various ensembles under the stage name of Baron Von Mingus  In 1950 Mingus worked with vibist Red Norvo and guitarist Tal Farlow and recorded with Red Norvo. In New York (1951 or so), Mingus also played with Billy Taylor, Stan Getz, and Art Tatum. And settling in New York in 1953 Mingus played bass for the infamous Massey Hall concert with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington..

Going His Own Way

By the mid-1950s Mingus struck a chord of independence. He formed his own label, Debut, to protect and document his enlarging repertoire of original music. He also formed the Jazz Composer’s Workshop, a cooperative for musicians—all as a way to avoid the commercialism of the music industry. The Workshop was a way to enable young musicians to have their compositions performed in concert and on recordings.

Rare for bassists, Mingus quickly developed as a leader of musicians. In addition, he was an accomplished pianist who could have made a career playing that instrument. Mingus was inspired by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious  Monk, Negro gospel music, and Mexican folk music, as well as  traditional jazz and 20th-century concert music. The presentation at the 1955 Brandeis Festival of the Creative Arts of “Revelations,” which combined jazz and classical idioms, established Mingus as one of the foremost jazz composers of his day. 

With his revolt against cool and hard bop, Mingus headed to the forefront of the avant-garde. Like the masters of hard bop, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and Lee Morgan, Mingus attempted to get more “soul” into bebop with simple churchy minor-keyed melodies and rolling gospel piano chords Moments on the Columbia sides, Horace Parlan’s piano sounds as if it were coming off a Ray Charles record. Throughout Mingus, there’s an emphasis on blues and gospel. 

Mingus drew directly on the music of the sanctified church meetings : the call and response of the horns, the antiphonal textures, the collective improvisation all reflect the preaching, testifying, and speaking in tongues that he heard as a child. No jazz composer has been more insistent on getting a bluesy, “vocal” character from his players; one notes the speech-like free duets with drummer Dannie Richmond and, for a while, Eric Dolphy. Mingus’s music moved to a whole other order, by 1959, a kind of chamber jazz.

Most of Mingus’ best work was derived from close collaborations with improvising musicians such as  trumpeter Thad Jones, drummer Dannie Richmond, alto saxophonist  Jackie McLean, and woodwind-player Eric Dolphy. Trombonist Jimmy Knepper describes their relationship as a kind of dysfunctional romance from which he could find no escape. “Mingus just seemed to be unavoidable to me,” reports Brian Priestly’s in his Mingus biography.. “I used to get very depressed. Good God, I’d say to myself, I’m stuck with this guy for the rest of my life. His music was so difficult, with all those time changes and different sequences. . . . It seemed written to trip you up. I wanted to relax and play standards.”  

Though pared down structures for improvisation, Mingus’s tunes are full of hummable melodies. Mingus also wrote  for larger instrumentation’s and composed several film scores. Pointing to a Mingus score, Marsalis said, “that’s the kind of thing you find in an étude book under ‘hard.’ ” Aside from being a great bandleader and bassist, Mingus, Gunther Schuller reiterated, could go toe to toe with the greats simply in a written-on-paper composing contest. Mingus was a “composer.”

 As a bassist, Mingus, with his volatile and beautiful music, was always more effective as a soloist than an accompanist of sidemen.

Mingus’ Classic Recordings

His extraordinarily creative body of work  include Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Tijuana Moods, Mingus Dynasty , Mingus Ah Um , The Black Saint & The Sinner Lady, Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, Let My Children Hear Music. He recorded over a hundred albums and wrote over three hundred scores.  Most frequently  recorded by others is “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat,” a tribute to Lester  Young, and his most frequently cited extended work is Pithecanthropus  Erectus, a musical interpretation of human evolution. For some some critics, the1959 Columbia  recordings Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty represent Mingus at his peak — he wrote great material for great bands and played superbly himself. 

Mingus Ah Um includes great tunes. The album leads off with “Better Get It in Your Soul,” an upbeat blues with a fetching melody. Next comes, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” (also known as “Theme for Lester Young”), a beautiful ballad. Minus also wrote tributes to Ellington (“Open Letter to Duke”) and Jelly Roll Morton (“Jelly Roll”). Mingus also wrote the great political satire, “Fables of Faubus,” in which he mocks the segregationist governor of Arkansas.

Mingus’ masterwork is “Epitaph, a composition which is more than 4000 measures long and which requires two hours to perform. It was discovered after his death during a cataloguing of his musical estate. With the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, the score and instrumental parts were copied, and the piece itself was premiered by a 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Gunther Schuller, in a concert produced by Sue Mingus at Alice Tully Hall on June 3, 1989, ten years after Mingus’ death.

Epitaph, The New Yorker wrote, represents the first advance in jazz composition since Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown, and Beige,” which was written in 1943. The New York Times said it ranked with the “most memorable jazz events of the decade.” Certain the composition would never be performed in his lifetime, Mingus called his work Epitaph; written for his “tombstone.”

Accomplishments & Awards

Mingus believed his accomplishments as a bassist were the result of hard work but that his talent for composition came from God. In 1971 the State University of New York at Buffalo awarded Mingus the Slee Chair of Music and spent a semester teaching composition in its music department. That same year (1971) also saw the release of his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, published by Knopf, which  appeared in 1972 as a Bantam paperback and was reissued after his death, in 1980, by Viking/Penguin and again by Pantheon Books, in 1991. In 1972

Mingus re-signed with Columbia Records. Alvin Ailey choreographed an hour program called “The Mingus Dances” during a 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). It was rare for the Guggenheim  two award an artist two grants. Mingus also received an honorary degree from Brandeis and an award from Yale University. “For sheer melodic and rhythmic and structural originality,” The New Yorker wrote, “his compositions may equal anything written in western music in the twentieth century.”

A Life Cut Short & Remembrance

Mingus toured throughout Europe, Japan, Canada, South America and the United States until the end of 1977 when he was diagnosed as having a rare nerve disease, Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis. Confined to a wheelchair no longer able to write music on paper or compose at the piano, Mingus sang his last works  into a tape recorder.

 He died 5 January 1979 in Cuernavaca, Mexico. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River in India. From the 1960’s until his death at age 56, Mingus remained in the forefront of American music. 

Both New York City and Washington, D.C. honored him posthumously with a “Charles Mingus Day.” The National Endowment for the Arts provided grants for a Mingus foundation called “Let My Children Hear Music,” which catalogued all of Mingus’ works. The Library of Congress has acquired the entire collection of Mingus musical scores and memorabilia, a first for American jazz composition. The microfilms of these works were then given to the Music Division of the New York Public Library where they are currently available for study and scholarship—a first, for jazz. 

A repertory band called the Mingus Dynasty and the Mingus Big Band continue to perform his music. Recent biographies of Charles Mingus include Mingus by Brian Priestley and Mingus/Mingus by Janet Coleman and Al Young.

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mingus 5 tet in belgium   / Freedom

Charles Mingus—Triumph of the Underdog

Charles Mingus said of himself “I am half black man, half yellow man, but I claim to be a Negro. I am Charles Mingus, the famed jazz musician—but not famed enough to make a living in America.”

“His statement summed up the conflict that plagued this musical genius his entire life: volatility, pain, prescience, and raw rage roiled inside a complex man, composer, bass player, and trombonist who transcended labels and refused to be pigeonholed into a single musical style–and who did not achieve real fame until late in his career.

The documentary is full of well-preserved footage and contains interviews with many Mingus followers like Wynton Marsalis as well as performances by icons Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Gerry Mulligan. The film traverses past the musical legend with insight and information into Mingus’s personal life, his civil rights activism, and his final triumph in the music world–just as his body began to deteriorate from Lou Gehrig’s disease–to his eventual death in 1979. Mingus left a legacy composed of genius, vulnerability, brilliance, anarchy, and, as one friend noted, “the entire range of human emotion that is reflected in his music.”—Paula Nechak 

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Charles Mingus: Fable of Faubus

“Fables of Faubus” is a song composed by jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. One of Mingus’ most explicitly political works, the song was written as a direct protest against Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 sent out the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American teenagers. The song was first recorded for Mingus’ 1959 album, Mingus Ah Um. Columbia refused to allow the lyrics to the song to be included, and so the song was recorded as an instrumental on the album. It was not until October 20, 1960 that the song was recorded with lyrics, for the album Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, which was released on the more independent Candid label. Due to contractual issues with Columbia, the song could not be released as “Fables of Faubus”, and so the Candid version was titled “Original Faubus Fables.”

The personnel for the Candid recording were Charles Mingus (bass, vocals), Dannie Richmond (drums, vocals), Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone), and Ted Curson (trumpet). The vocals featured a call-and-response between Mingus and Richmond. Critic Don Heckman commented on the unedited “Original Faubus Fables” in a 1962 review that it was “a classic Negro put-down in which satire becomes a deadly rapier-thrust. Faubus emerges in a glare of ridicule as a mock villain whom no-one really takes seriously. This kind of commentary, brimful of feeling, bitingly direct and harshly satiric, appears far too rarely in jazz.” The song, either with or without lyrics, was one of the compositions which Mingus returned to most often, both on record and in concert.—Wikipedia

photo left: As fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford tried to enter the school, soldiers of the National Guard, under orders from Arkansas Governor Faubus, would step in her way to prevent her from entering.


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Fable of Faubus

                                   By Charles Mingus

Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em shoot us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em stab us! Oh, Lord, don’t let ’em tar and feather us! Oh, Lord, no more swastikas! Oh, Lord, no more Ku Klux Klan!

Name me someone who’s ridiculous, Dannie. Governor Faubus! Why is he so sick and ridiculous? He won’t permit integrated schools.

Then he’s a fool! Boo! Nazi Fascist supremists! Boo! Ku Klux Klan (with your Jim Crow plan)

Name me a handful that’s ridiculous, Dannie Richmond. Faubus, Rockefeller, Eisenhower Why are they so sick and ridiculous?

Two, four, six, eight: They brainwash and teach you hate. H-E-L-L-O, Hello.

Orval E. Faubus was the governor of Arkansas in 1957 and against desegregation. He sent the National Guard to prevent black children from attending high school in Little Rock.

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Beneath the Underdog

By Charles Mingus

“Mingus was something else. A pure genius. I loved him.” Miles Davis; “The jazz world has seen its fair share of compelling autobiographies but none to rival the quality of Beneath the Underdog. A shocking and brilliant book. Five stars.” Q; “There has never been an autobiography like Beneath the Underdog. A riveting work of highly subjective reminiscences and tortured self-analysis.” Richard Williams; “[Mingus’] autobiography teeters between derangement and genius.” Time Out; “An outlandish, brilliant autobiography.”—Newsweek

Mingus by Mingus. From the shabby roadhouses to fabulous estates, from the psychiatric ward of Bellevue to worlds of mysticism and solitude, these are the celebrated, demonic, anguished and, above all, profoundly moving memoirs of the great jazz bassist and compose Charles Mingus. First published in 1971, Beneath the Underdog is a masterpiece of memoir, a riveting insight into one of the giants of twentieth century music.—Publisher, Canongate Books

Mingus, Sue Graham. 2002. Tonight at Noon: A Love Story. New York: Pantheon Books.

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Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered

the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It

By H. W. Brands

In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar’s astonishing rise to become the world’s principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar’s changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America’s economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan’s bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar’s dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power–and the enormous risks–of the dollar’s worldwide reign.  The Economy

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label ‘trafficked’ does not accurately describe migrants’ lives and that the ‘rescue industry’ serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. “Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality.”—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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update 6 April 2012




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