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Charles Mingus Bio
Better Get It In Your Soul

Charles Mingus was one of the most important figures in twentieth century American music. He was a virtuoso bass player, accomplished pianist, bandleader, author, poet, civil rights activist, and a prolific composer. His number of jazz compositions is second only to Duke Ellington.

He was born April 22, 1922 on the US Army base of Camp Little in Nogales, Arizona which contained one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments from the 10th Cavalry. After 18 months, his father was transferred along with the family to Los Angeles in an area that is now known as Watts. His earliest musical influences were from the church choir and group singing — and from hearing Duke Ellington over the radio when he was about 8 years old.

He first studied trombone, then cello, and then bass after his good friend Buddy Collette convinced him to switch because Buddy needed a bass in his band. He was also an accomplished pianist who, it is said, could have made a career on that instrument. In the 40's, Mingus played with Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and Lionel Hampton. Eventually he settled in New York where he played and recorded with the leading musicians of the 1950's — Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and Duke Ellington.

By the mid fifties, he had formed his own publishing and recording companies to protect the large body of his compositions. He founded the "Jazz Workshop" for young composers to have their works performed in concert and recorded. He recorded over 100 albums of his music and wrote over 300 scores. He toured extensively throughout Europe, Japan, Canada, South America, and the United States.

Mingus received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Smithsonian Institute, and two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation. He also received an honorary degree from Brandeis University and an award from Yale University.

The New Yorker wrote, "For sheer melodic and rhythmic and structural originality, his compositions may equal anything written in western music in the twentieth century." Steve Schlesinger of the Guggenheim Foundation commented that Mingus was one of the few artists who received two grants and added: "I look forward to the day when we can transcend labels like jazz and acknowledge Charles Mingus as the major American composer that he is."

In 1977, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and confined to a wheelchair. He could no longer compose at the piano or write music but succeeded in composing by singing into a tape recorder. He died at age 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico on January 5, 1979. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges River in India. On the day of his death, 56 whales beached themselves in Mexico and had to be burned.

Following his death, the National Endowment for the Arts provided grants for a Mingus Foundation which was to catalogue all of Mingus' works. In the process, Mingus' two hour masterwork titled "Epitaph" was discovered. With help from the Ford Foundation, it was premiered by a 30 piece jazz orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller and produced by Sue Mingus at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in 1989. The Library of Congress was presented with the Charles Mingus Collection in 1993. In September 1995, the US Postal Service issued a Mingus first-class stamp.

Both New York City and Washington, D.C. honored Mingus posthumously with a "Charles Mingus Day".

In April 1993, the Tucson Jazz Society under Executive Director Yvonne Ervin and the Nogales/Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce produced "Jazz on the Border: The Mingus Project." This was a week-long event that featured the performance of the Mingus masterwork "Epitaph". This included the world premiere of a long lost movement of the work. The week also featured former Mingus band members giving clinics in the schools, adult education lectures, film presentations, and free outdoor concerts held in both Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The former Mingus band members who participated were alumni, Buddy Collette and Jack Walrath, along with bassist, Ray Drummond. This project was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arizona Commission on the Arts with assistance from the Nogales business community and the Tucson arts community.

Some of his most performed pieces are: Better Git It in Your Soul, Jelly Roll, Moanin', Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, Tijuana Gift Shop, The Children's Hour of Dream, Haitian Fight Song, Gunslinging Bird, Self Portrait in Three Colors, Boogie Stop Shuffle, Fables of Faubus, Open Letter to Duke, and Los Mariachis.

In order to keep Mingus music available to musicians and audiences, Sue Mingus has formed three bands that carry on Mingus music today, domestically and internationally, including a regular weekly residency in New York City: the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Orchestra. In 2007, she founded an ongoing national Charles Mingus High School Competition. Mingus music charts and educational books are published through Hal Leonard. A non-profit organization, "Let My Children Hear Music: the Charles MIngus Institute," has made possible the performances of "Epitaph," Charles Mingus' 3-hour masterwork and other activities. These activities assure audiences that the music is very much alive and well today, not only the history but the continuing presence of his compositions, as Charles would have wished.

Charles Mingus, Paris 1964. Photo by Guy Le Querrec
Photo by Tom Copi, copyright Jazz Workshop, Inc.
Photo by Hans Kumpf, copyright Jazz Workshop, Inc.


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