Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona on April 22, 1922. The first instrument he played was the trombone, a sound he always liked – trombonist Jimmy Knepper was one of the defining voices of many a Mingus ensemble. But it was with the bass that Mingus found his voice. Inspired by Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton, Mingus strove to raise the instrument up from the rhythm section and into a singular voice.
But beyond his innovations on the bass, Mingus was one of the great jazz composers, drawing from a famously volatile personality to make complex music that took in the whole spectrum of human emotion. His compositions could be pensive, as in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” his tribute to tenor saxophonist Lester Young; they could be angry, as in “Fables of Faubus,” a critique of the Arkansas Governor who in 1957 tried to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High; they could be quietly romantic, as in “Self-portrait in Three Colors.” His great appetite for life is all there in his music, which tapped on diverse influences from gospel, blues, be-bop, classical music, and flamenco. When the pieces came together, as in his long-form masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, you can hear the different voices sing as part of the same mercurial, kaleidoscopic human being.
Charles Mingus died in Mexico on January 5, 1979. His widow Sue Graham Mingus took his remains to India, and, according to his wishes, scattered his ashes in the Ganges.
The music of Charles Mingus can be heard today in sources as diverse as the man’s own moods and influences. Intriguingly, different recordings of the same composition – “Haitian Fight Song” – have been used for both a scene of seduction in the film Jerry Maguire and an automobile commercial. His music has even been used in an ad for a world-renowned fashion house. The Mingus Big Band, under the management of his widow, Sue Mingus, keeps his music alive on stage. They appeared at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium in 1993 and continue to tour today. The Music Division is home to the Charles Mingus Collection, which includes his music and writings, and the complete manuscript to his larger-than-life autobiography, Beneath the Underdog.
- Mingus, Charles. Beneath the Underdog. New York: Knopf, 1971.
- Mingus, Sue. Tonight at noon: a love story. New York: Pantheon books, 2002.
- Priestly, Brian. Mingus, a critical biography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1982.
- Santoro, Gene. Myself when I am real: the life and music of Charles Mingus. New York : Oxford University Press, 2000.