Because of his brilliant writing for mid-size ensembles—and his catering to and emphasizing the strengths of the musicians in his groups—Mingus is often considered the heir apparent to Duke Ellington, for whom he expressed unqualified admiration. Indeed, Dizzy Gillespie had once claimed Mingus reminded him "of a young Duke", citing their shared "organizational genius."
Although Mingus' music was once believed to be too difficult to play without Mingus' leadership, many musicians play Mingus compositions today, from those who play with the repertory bands Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, and Mingus Orchestra, to the high school students who play the charts and compete in the Charles Mingus High School Competition.
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".
Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona. He was raised largely in the Watts area of Los Angeles, California. His mother's paternal heritage was Chinese and English, while historical records indicate that his father was the illegitimate offspring of a black farmhand and his Swedish employer's white granddaughter.
His mother allowed only church-related music in their home, but Mingus developed an early love for jazz, especially the music of Duke Ellington. He studied trombone and later cello. Much of the cello technique he learned was applicable to double bass when he took up the instrument in high school. He studied five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and compositional techniques with Lloyd Reese.
Beginning in his teen years, Mingus was writing quite advanced pieces; many are similar to Third Stream because they incorporate elements of classical music. A number of them were recorded in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller, and released as Pre-Bird, referring to Charlie "Bird" Parker; Mingus was one of many musicians whose perspectives on music were altered by Parker into "pre- and post-Bird" eras.
Mingus gained a reputation as something of a bass prodigy. His first major professional job was playing with former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard. He toured with Louis Armstrong in 1943, and by early 1945 was recording in Los Angeles in a band led by Russell Jacquet and which also included Teddy Edwards, Maurice Simon, Bill Davis and Chico Hamilton, and in May that year, in Hollywood, again with Teddy Edwards, in a band lead by Howard McGhee. He then played with Lionel Hampton's band in the late 1940s; Hampton performed and recorded several of Mingus's pieces. A popular trio of Mingus, Red Norvo and Tal Farlow in 1950 and 1951 received considerable acclaim, but Mingus' mixed origin caused problems with club owners and he left the group. Mingus was briefly a member of Ellington's band in 1953, as a substitute for bassist Wendell Marshall. Mingus's notorious temper led to his being one of the few musicians personally fired by Ellington (Bubber Miley and drummer Bobby Durham are among the others), after an on-stage fight between Mingus and Juan Tizol.
Also in the early 1950s, before attaining commercial recognition as a bandleader, Mingus played gigs with Charlie Parker, whose compositions and improvisations greatly inspired and influenced him. Mingus considered Parker the greatest genius and innovator in jazz history, but he had a love-hate relationship with Parker's legacy. Mingus blamed the Parker mythology for a derivative crop of pretenders to Parker's throne. He was also conflicted and sometimes disgusted by Parker's self-destructive habits and the romanticized lure of drug addiction they offered to other jazz musicians. In response to the many sax players who imitated Parker, Mingus titled a song, "If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats" (released on Mingus Dynasty as "Gunslinging Bird").
In 1952 Mingus co-founded Debut Records with Max Roach, in order to conduct his recording career as he saw fit; the name originated with a 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. The records though, are often regarded as among the finest live jazz recordings.
In 1955, Mingus was involved in a notorious incident while playing a club date billed as a "reunion" with Parker, Powell, and Roach. Powell, who had suffered from alcoholism and mental illness for years (possibly exacerbated by a severe police beating and electroshock treatments), had to be helped from the stage, unable to play or speak coherently. As Powell's incapacitation became apparent, Parker stood in one spot at a microphone, chanting "Bud Powell...Bud Powell..." as if beseeching Powell's return. Allegedly, Parker continued this incantation for several minutes after Powell's departure, to his own amusement and Mingus' exasperation. Mingus took another microphone and announced to the crowd, "Ladies and gentlemen, please don't associate me with any of this. This is not jazz. These are sick people." This was Parker's last public performance; about a week later Parker died after years of alcohol and drug abuse.
Mingus often worked with a mid-sized ensemble (around 8–10 members) of rotating musicians known as the Jazz Workshop. Mingus broke new ground, constantly demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot. Those who joined the Workshop (or Sweatshops as they were colorfully dubbed by the musicians) included Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Charles McPherson and Horace Parlan. Mingus shaped these musicians into a cohesive improvisational machine that in many ways anticipated free jazz. Some musicians dubbed the workshop a "university" for jazz.
Mingus's pace slowed somewhat in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974 he formed a quintet with Richmond, pianist Don Pullen, trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxophonist George Adams. They recorded two well-received albums, Changes One and Changes Two. Mingus also played with Charles McPherson in many of his groups during this time. Cumbia and Jazz Fusion in 1976 sought to blend Colombian music (the "Cumbia" of the title) with more traditional jazz forms. In 1971, Mingus taught for a semester at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York as the Slee Professor of Music.
By the mid-1970s, Mingus was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a wastage of the musculature. His once formidable bass technique suffered, until he could no longer play the instrument. He continued composing, however, and supervised a number of recordings before his death.
He did not complete his final project of an album named after him with singer Joni Mitchell, which included lyrics added by Mitchell to Mingus compositions, including "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," among Mitchell originals and short, spoken word duets and home recordings of Mitchell and Mingus. The album featured the talents of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and another influential bassist and composer, Jaco Pastorius. Mingus died aged 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico where he had traveled for treatment and convalescence. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.
The music of Charles Mingus is currently being performed and reinterpreted by the Mingus Big Band, which, starting October 2008, plays every Monday at Jazz Standard in New York City, and often tours the rest of the U.S. and Europe. Elvis Costello has written lyrics for a few Mingus pieces. He had once sung lyrics for one piece, "Invisible Lady", being backed by the Mingus Big Band on the album, Tonight at Noon: Three of Four Shades of Love.
In addition to the Mingus Big Band, there is the Mingus Orchestra and the Mingus Dynasty, each of which are managed by Jazz Workshop, Inc., and run by Mingus's widow Sue Graham Mingus.
Epitaph is considered to be one of Charles Mingus' masterpieces. The composition is 4,235 measures long, requires two hours to perform, and is one of the longest jazz pieces ever written. Epitaph was only completely discovered during the cataloging process after his death by musicologist Andrew Homzy. 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. This concert was produced by Mingus's widow, Sue Graham Mingus, at Alice Tully Hall on June 3, 1989, ten years after his death. It was performed again at several concerts in 2007. The performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall is available on NPR. The complete score was published in 2008 by Hal Leonard.
As respected as Mingus was for his musical talents, he was sometimes feared for his occasional violent onstage temper, which was at times directed at members of his band, and other times aimed at the audience. He was physically large, prone to obesity (especially in his later years), and was by all accounts often intimidating and frightening when expressing anger or displeasure. Mingus was prone to clinical depression. He tended to have brief periods of extreme creative activity, intermixed with fairly long periods of greatly decreased output.
When confronted with a nightclub audience talking and clinking ice in their glasses while he performed, Mingus stopped his band and loudly chastised the audience, stating "Isaac Stern doesn't have to put up with this shit." He once played a prank on a similar group of nightclub chatterers by silencing his band for several seconds, allowing the loud audience members to be clearly heard, then continuing as the rest of the audience snickered at the oblivious "soloists".
Guitarist and singer Jackie Paris was a first-hand witness to Mingus's irascibility. Paris recalls his time in the Jazz Workshop: "He chased everybody off the stand except [drummer] Paul Motian and me... The three of us just wailed on the blues for about an hour and a half before he called the other cats back."
On October 12, 1962, Mingus punched Jimmy Knepper in the mouth while the two men were working together at Mingus's apartment on a score for his upcoming concert at New York Town Hall and Knepper refused to take on more work. The blow from Mingus broke off a crowned tooth and its underlying stub. According to Knepper, this ruined his embouchure and resulted in the permanent loss of the top octave of his range on the trombone - a significant handicap for any professional trombonist. This attack temporarily ended their working relationship and Knepper was unable to perform at the concert. Charged with assault, Mingus appeared in court in January, 1963 and was given a suspended sentence. Knepper would again work with Mingus in 1977 and played extensively with the Mingus Dynasty, formed after Mingus' death in 1979.
Despite his temper and intractability, Mingus demonstrated a more sensitive side as an early advocate of training cats to use ordinary (Western-style) flush toilets. His seminal tract, "The Charles Mingus CAT-alog For Toilet-Training Your Cat" laid a theoretical groundwork that had a profound influence on later work in the cat/toilet accommodation field.
Mingus was evicted from his apartment at 5 Great Jones Street in New York City for nonpayment of rent, captured in the film "Mingus: 1968", by Thomas Reichman, which also features Mingus performing in clubs and, in the apartment, shooting a shotgun, composing at the piano, and discussing love, art, and politics and the music school he had hoped to create.