Perhaps the best bass player of all time and one of the most influential composers the jazz genre has ever seen, Charles “Chuck” Mingus successfully left a permanent imprint on the jazz genre for generations to come.
Born in Arizona in 1922, Charles Mingus lead a relatively unassuming childhood as the son of an Army Sgt. with a multi-racial mother.1 Shortly after his birth, his family moved over to Watts, California, where he was raised for the duration of his young adult life. In later interviews at an older age, Charles remarked that his early inspiration, love, and fascination with music was partially borne out of his exposure to church music as well as hearing the wondrous works of Duke Ellington over the radio.2 This exposure would serve as instrumental to his future progression and development as he would greatly incorporate elements from Ellington himself, gospel music, as well as blues and other popular genres at the time into his future compositions.
Before we go any further, let’s hear some Mingus!
As with many other jazz legends throughout time, Charles Mingus was given formal training on his instrument of choice at a very early age and showed exceptional promise at it as well. He was initially trained on the double bass with H. Rheinshagen, a world renown bassist, along with a few other notable teachers on the instrument when he was just a young child.
It became clear when Mingus was around high-school age that he was a prodigy at the bass. Thus, in the early 40’s, he was awarded opportunities to play with Kid Ory in the Barney Bigard group in 1942 as well as the famous Louis Armstrong in the year following.3 Despite gaining acclaim and notoriety in jazz circles, Mingus was not yet known as the famous ‘Chuck Mingus’ that we currently remember him as.
All throughout the decade, Mingus was still performing under several names that played on the variation of ‘Mingus’. By the early 50’s, Mingus was beginning to really get his name out in a prominent way in the jazz industry as he featured at bassist for Red Norvo’s group. From that point, Mingus was awarded more opportunities to play with many more great musicians and composers such as; Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Dizzy Gillespie among others.
Perhaps one of his biggest accomplishments and failures came at the hands of Duke Ellington’s big band orchestra. In 1953, Charles Mingus was awarded the honor of playing in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, an honor that he no doubt had been dreaming of since a child.
He was given the role of substitute for the band’s regular bassist. However, Mingus was aware that if he performed well in his role that he could possibly be up for the role of permanent bassist with the band, an extremely promising position for a 21-year old to be in.
However, just a few weeks after he was offered this amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Mingus gained the unfortunate notoriety of being the first and only individual to be formally fired from a Duke Ellington band. His dismissal came about as a result of his altercation with another band member, Juan Tizol.4
This story wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t include what made Chuck Mingus feel the need to engage himself in an altercation with another band member and what made Juan important. Juan Tizol, was a long-time friend of Duke Ellington.
In fact, the two had known each other and performed together for approximately two decades by the time Chuck Mingus had joined the band. Juan Tizon and his wife were also personal friends of Duke Ellington as well and they offered each other consolation during tough points in each other’s lives.
According to Mingus, Juan Tizol used racial slurs towards Mingus when he believed that Mingus did not satisfactorily play an excerpt of music that he had requested.
If you are unaware of the type of person that Charles Mingus was, know that he had a very, very short fuse. In fact, one of the primary characteristics of Charles Mingus was his volatile temper. As you can imagine, if Charles Mingus alleged version of events is accurate, then the ensuing altercation between him and Juan Tizol was something that was nearly inevitable at that point. It was alleged that Juan brandished a knife at one point during their spat and from there it became physical. Of course, given Duke’s extensive history with Juan Tizol and Charles Mingus’ relative newcomer status in the band and in jazz as a whole, the decision was made to ask Chuck to leave.
Fortunately, this was far from the ending point of Charles Mingus’ career and he would go on to receive a great deal of critical acclaim and success as a composer in the field of jazz. By the mid 50’s, Charles Mingus was able to really hone in his skills as a producer, with the release of ‘Pitecanthropus Erectus’ and other timeless works that would serve to stand the test of time.
However, Charles Mingus’ temperament and unresolved mental issues would unfortunately serve as his undoing. His tumultuous personality may have been the catalyst for amazing music, but it created much chaos and disruption in his personal life and relationships.
As a result, he frequently found himself the victim of financial hardship and unsuccessful business ventures within the industry of music and was rendered essentially defunct by the mid-60’s. Incidents such as the destruction of trombonist Jimmy Knepper’s embouchure due to a punch in the face as well as the attempt to destroy Toshiko Akiyoshi’s hands with a piano cover during a live concert are just a few of the highlighted incidents of his volatile temper that drew ire and disdain from many musicians.
Despite Chuck Mingus’ character flaws, it cannot be understated how gifted he was as a composer and bassist. Known as nothing short of a virtuoso, his skill as an instrumentalist were unrivalled. He was also widely regarded as the heir apparent to Duke Ellington’s throne as jazz’s top composer. Hits such as ‘Moanin’ and other classics composed by Chuck Mingus will always be remembered in Jazz history for their booming sounds and creative and eclectic mixture of sounds and intonations. Often misunderstood, frequently appreciated, Charles Mingus will forever have a reserved spot in Jazz history.