Charles Mingus: Jazz’s Underdog and Compositional Giant

If a compositional work of music such as a 500-page score was discovered in our current era, that when arranged and performed would be 2.5 hours long and require 30 musicians to perform, you’d assume this was a classical piece for a symphony. Yet Epitaph is a composition by American jazz composer, bassist, bandleader, and pianist Charles Mingus. It is 4,235 measures long, 19 movements, and takes more than two hours to perform, and was only completely revealed during the cataloguing process after his death. A 2021 JazzTimes featured article relates the process: “…musicologist Andrew Holzy pieced it together measure by measure from hundreds of yellowing manuscripts he found in the wooden trunk in Sue Mingus’ living room.” Mr. Holzy stated—and what jazz musicians and jazz scholars now agree– “finding Epitaph was like discovering Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony.”

A major compositional force in the jazz world, Mingus broke beyond all boundaries of genre, being a seminal contributor to bebop, avant-garde jazz, post-bop, Third Stream, orchestral jazz, and free jazz. Considered a genius of innovation and an extraordinarily inventive composer, he is a revered figure. Many of his written pieces for quartets, quintets, and jazz orchestras demanded complicated transitions for the instruments he wrote for, challenging even the most talented top-drawer players to perform them. Mingus remains a towering influence with many current reincarnations of his late orchestral band such as Mingus Big Band, The Mingus Orchestra, and Mingus Dynasty – all performing arrangements for live audiences both nationally and internationally, often surfacing at major jazz festivals (The Mingus Big Band will be performing at the Newport Jazz Festival this summer).

Gunter Schuller, a classically trained horn player, jazz composer, conductor, music historian, and the arranger and conductor of the premiere of Mingus’ Epitaph in 1989, speaks to the top-tier level of where Mingus is regarded. “Certainly in jazz, I equate him only with Duke Ellington, and if you want to broaden to the whole field of American composers – he’s certainly got to loom very high up there.”

(Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, dir. by Don McGlynn, 1998)

Mingus was born in 1922 and raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. His first path to music was through his community, singing choir and gospel in his local church. He had a sophisticated ear for music at a very early age, listening to the radio, deeply drawn to jazz, and in particular, his greatest influence, Duke Ellington.  

In the late ‘30s, Mingus originally began studying trombone and cello, before high school friends and future collaborators Buddy Collette and Britt Woodman introduced him to the bass. From his discovery of this instrument, he found immediate and astonishing command. With standout performances in well-known, high-profile L.A. jazz bands, by the early ‘40s Mingus had gained a reputation as a bass prodigy. He landed an opportunity to tour with Louis Armstrong in 1943, and joined other L.A.-area bandleaders that provided further attention to his playing ability.

With further recognition through top-drawer gig exposure, he was hired by (then) drummer and vibraphonist, virtuoso bandleader Lionel Hampton, in the late ‘40s, leading to an opportunity for performing and recording some of his early written compositions. Mingus, also prophetically, played in Duke Ellington’s band. Ellington remained his lifelong greatest influence and idol, yet he managed to get fired by Ellington for a physical confrontation with another band member during practice.

Mingus would continue to play relentlessly as a sideman as required but sought opportunities to emerge as a leader of small groups. During this period, he would become featured in an acclaimed trio with vibraphonist Red Norvo and guitarist Tal Farlow. With a fiery, aggressive, and passionate personality, he would seek to become a bandleader and master of his own destiny but did not find his larger jazz environment until moving to New York City in 1951.

Moving to New York City, Mingus made an immediate and important connection with saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and his band, which included famed trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis recalled this time period in his biography Miles (Simon & Schuster, 1990): “Mingus was a great bass player – but he was hard to get along with, especially about music, because he had his own definite ideas about what was good and what was bad, and he didn’t mind telling anybody…but I was glad to play with him again because he was always an inventive, hard driving, imaginative musician.”

Mingus would then enter the hotbed of bebop and the expanding influence and reputation of its superstars, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell. His meeting and collaborations with legendary jazz drummer Max Roach would lead to launching a small record label, Debut Records. Released in ‘53 on his label, Jazz at Massey Hall would capture Mingus alongside the gunslingers of bebop, recorded live at Toronto’s Massey Hall with Parker, Gillespie and Powell. He would often see the toll of drugs and alcohol on stage and in rehearsals, famously playing with both Parker and Powell one evening in ‘55 when Powell became incapacitated and left the stage. Mingus then took the microphone and spoke to the audience, declaring, “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not associate me with any of this. This is not jazz. These are sick people.” Parker would be dead a few weeks later, after years of substance abuse.

The Jazz Workshop, an ensemble of 8 to 10 members, marked an intensively creative and formidable period for Mingus as he organized, as a bandleader, a rotation of musicians including Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Charles McPherson, and Horace Parlan. Mingus focused on driving the musician’s improvisation, “constantly demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot.” This workshop, often dubbed a “university” for jazz, is often credited, under the direction and exploration musically by Mingus, as anticipating the later “free jazz” movement.

The late ‘50s and ‘60s was to be Mingus’ most qualified productive and prolific period, recording some 30 albums for a variety of labels including Atlantic, Candid, Columbia, and Impulse!. A major artistic statement, reputation-wise, for its highly inventive and experimental compositional approach, is the release, Pithecanthropus Erectus in ‘56. The title, according to the liner notes written by Mingus, refers to “man’s own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave, and his greed in attempting to stand on a false security.” The Penguin Guide to Jazz gave it a maximum four-star rating and included it in its “core collection” of essential recordings, describing it as “One of the truly great modern jazz albums.” Also seen as establishing himself as an originator of creativity, incorporating “vocabularies of bop and swing.” Music critic Steve Huey states, “a breakthrough as a leader…establishes himself as a composer of boundless imagination and a fresh new voice.”

In 1959, Mingus would deliver a standout masterpiece, Mingus Ah Um, that still sounds freshly modern today. A musical collage that bridges the post-bebop school with experimental, “both reflecting the past and predicting the future.” Contemporary free-jazz tuba player Theon Cross (core band member of Sons of Kemet) reflects on its lasting influence. “Mingus’ music incorporates many of the jazz traditions that came before him, while also creating a sound that is unique and undeniably Mingus…it’s something all musicians try to accomplish. Albums like these are blueprints, essential listening for learning how to develop writing and arranging.”

Many compositions from Mingus Ah Um are jazz standards today, and musically distinct from one another. To highlight a few: The instrumental Goodbye Pork Pie Hat (a tribute to saxophone legend Lester Young), is a slow-moving, brooding piece, covered by a wide range of musicians including Joni Mitchell and Jeff Beck; Better Git It In Your Soul is inspired by the gospel singing and preaching from his youth, attending his local church and growing up in Watts, Los Angeles, California. A politically pointed song, Fables of Faubus, was named after Orval Faubus (1910-1994), the Governor of Arkansas infamous for his 1957 stand against the integration of Little Rock, Arkansas schools in defiance of U.S. Supreme Court rulings – forcing then President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. Mingus Ah Um would become one of only fifty recordings chosen by the Library of Congress in 2003 to be added to the National Recording Registry.

Mingus would receive further accolades from jazz critics, scholars, and aficionados for his 1963 recording The Black Saint and Sinner Lady. As a six-part suite, it is as expansive as it is dense in a variety of jazz emotions. As reviewed by All About Jazz critic Robert Spencer, “The suite is a feast of virtuoso performances, shifting moods and textures, and detailed background work by Mingus’ 11-piece band.” A highly regarded achievement in orchestration by a jazz bandleader,

it is often referred to by jazz critics as an unparalleled accomplishment by any composer in jazz history.

By the mid ‘60s, a lifelong collaboration, musical kinship, and personal friendship had developed with jazz drummer Dannie Richmond, which had begun with the release The Clown in 1957, with Richmond also making considerable percussion contributions on Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959) The Black Saint and Sinner Lady (Impulse! Records, 1963) and other recordings during this period.   

Known for having the most impressive and versatile rhythm sections in jazz, they were later joined by experimental jazz pianist and composer Jaki Byard and dubbed “The Almighty Three.” In the 1998 documentary Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, directed by Don McGlynn, Mingus, in an interview, tried to express his relationship with Richmond and their inter-connection with rhythm as musical dialogue, “We have a beat that’s like a railroad track or straight line – we don’t play this straight line – we suggest this straight line. So, you may hear a bass and drum rhythm off the line, but it’s not. The thought plays under, on or around or in between that straight line.”

Mingus would expand to a sextet, to include the exceptionally talented multi-instrumentalist (saxophonist, clarinetist, and flutist) Eric Dolphy, also adding trumpeter Johnny Coles and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. This was short-lived composite band, as Dolphy would die on tour and other personnel issues would break up the sextet. However, a limited-edition seven-disc box set is available, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (Mosiac, 2012). This was a band formation still considered seminal and on the short list of all-time great jazz groups. In this historic moment, Eric Dolphy would cement his legacy as a genius for his short-lived career, performing with Mingus, captured on these recordings. Per Pitchfork: “The bassist/leader was the mastermind, but the star was Eric Dolphy, a virtuosic, modernist-minded improvisor on saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute, who was a mere month from death due to undiagnosed diabetes…like every showing of the ‘64 Mingus sextet, these are outstanding performances.”

In the late ‘60s and mid ‘70s, Mingus was slowed by poor health and financial distractions, but he still organized a formidable quintet with his rhythm right arm, drummer Dannie Richmond, trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxophonist George Adam. Both albums, Changes One and Changes Two, were solid individualist musical statements, well received by fans and reviewers. JazzWax critic Marc Myers wrote, “One of my favorite Charles Mingus albums is Changes One…it exceeds even Mingus’ high composing standards and sensitivity. It’s not the nostalgia that draws me…it’s the albums shifting moods, deep romanticism and the quality of playing.”

Inviting a collaboration with contemporary songwriter and folksinger/musician Joni Mitchell, who was infusing her late-career recordings and performances with a jazz foundation, a chemistry developed. Mingus would be recorded in the months before his death in 1979, and the album is wholly dedicated to him. He would not live to see the final production of the release, but it stands to show his connection to the next stage of influence: jazz fusion. With early leaders of the genre like Weather Report personnel including bassist Jaco Pastorius, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Peter Erskine, and Herbie Hancock on keyboards, the openness of a seminal bebop pioneer to seek out a Canadian-turned-Laurel Canyon folksinger is remarkable. The piece was meant to be a musical version of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. As described by AllMusic critic Lindsay Planer, “sprinkled amongst these soulfully jazzy pieces are five “raps” or aural snapshots of the time Mitchell and Mingus spent together.” Certainly, Mingus would have felt the truest appreciation and respect from all these younger aspiring musicians as they covered the iconic Goodbye Pork Pie Hat and other contributions by both Mingus and Mitchell. It was also a reminder of how his music would drive future interpretations and directions, taken on by many artists in the future.

Mingus, who had been physically incapacitated by Lou Gehrig’s Disease and immobilized during the recording periods for Mingus, would die on January 5, 1979.

Nicknamed “The Angry Man of Jazz,” he had occasion and reputation to be physically confrontational and seesaw from composure to exhibiting ferocious behavior. As recalled by Gunther Sculler (musician, composer, arranger, and conductor of the premiere of Mingus’ Epitaph) “I’ve always said he could be sweet and calm as a two-month-old baby and 2 hours later he could explode like Vesuvius – and everything in between.” 

Mingus was most defiant in the face of racism, ever present in his life as a Black man, and particularly with his mother being Asian, he experienced a stigma of not being wholly of one race. In conversation and compositions during the tumultuous Civil Rights era, he voiced his outrage against inequality, segregation, and the violence and police brutality against African-Americans during his lifetime. Some examples of direct political statements can be found in the songs Fables of Faubus, Prayer for Passive Resistance, Haitian Fight Song and Meditations on Integration. In the documentary previously mentioned, Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, there is a telling sequence where he faces the camera and recites The Pledge of Allegiance and edits the words directly as he speaks, to establish that he and other people of color are excluded and therefore with that understanding – he pledges his allegiance.

From a musical standpoint, he didn’t like the term jazz to describe his music, as he felt it was incomplete, and even further – degrading and a racial slur. He voiced this position in several interviews and publications during his lifetime. As stated by Village Voice writer, author and major contributor to jazz literature, Nat Hentoff, the critics simply “could not find a category, a convenient term, to describe him.”

Always seeking and aiming for a new horizon in jazz, Mingus’ legacy grows with present-day examinations of his arrangements, innovative techniques, complexities of orchestral composition and his wide experimentation. In his description of putting the pieces together in making and arranging music, he likened it to circuitry. “If I can find my component, you take this lightbulb for instance, and screw it into a socket. This thing ain’t nothing by itself, but If I can find its component – it lights up!” Clearly his enormously important contribution to jazz music, in many directions, establishes he was a genius at finding “component” connections in compositions, recordings and performances.