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Charles (Charlie) Mingus Jr. (April 22, 1922–January 5, 1979) was an American composer and musician. He was hugely influential in the jazz world. First a bassist, Mingus went on to be a prolific composer, known for his affinity for collective improvisation. He greatly admired and was influenced heavily by Duke Ellington, with whom he played for a time. He is also remembered for his short temper, nicknamed "The Angry Man of Jazz."


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Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona on a U.S. army base. He moved to Los Angeles when he was just eighteen months years old, after his father was re-stationed. His mother's ancestry is said to be Chinese and English, while his father's is more muddled, but is likely a combination of Swedish and African American.

His introduction to music was mostly from the church, and his mother would only allow church music in the house. He first heard Duke Ellington on the radio when he was eight years old and later said Ellington was his single biggest influence beside church music.


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He started out playing the trombone, then the cello, and then switched to the double bass in high school when his friend, Buddy Colette, told him they needed a bass player in his band. His early relationship with music composition and theory was one of contention–his teachers did not spend the time with him necessary for him to learn how to read music and this alienated him slightly from the classical genre. He began writing music in his teen years and his early compositions have been compared to the Third Stream genre for their incorporation of classical influences.


By the 1940's, Mingus had acquired a reputation as a bass prodigy. By 1943, he was touring with Louis Armstrong and was recording alongside Russel Jacquet and his band by 1945.


He played briefly in Ellington's band as a substitute bassist but was later fired personally by Ellington for his temper. He went on to play with Charlie "Bird" Parker, whose improvisational style and compositions greatly influenced him.


Charlie Mingus with Dizzy Gillespie, 1971. Image source


In 1952, Mingus opened his own record label with Max Roach called Debut Records, in an effort to give an outlet to unrecorded artists. It was under this label that a recording of Roach, Mingus, Parker, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie was released, and it is said to be the last recording of the two lead musicians playing together. Mingus' breakthrough year came in 1956, with the recording of Pithecanthropus Erectus. From that recording into the 1960s, Mingus recorded upwards of thirty recordings. Mingus wrote his compositions with specific musicians in mind. In 1963, he released The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. His piece, Epitaph, is one of his most highly critically acclaimed pieces. It takes two hours to perform, and wasn't discovered in full until after Mingus' death.

Other notable recordings include:

Mingus Dynasty (1959)

Pre-Bird (1960)

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (1963)

Town Hall Concert (1964)



Mingus died in Mexico in 1979 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

During his life, Mingus received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Institute, and an honorary degree from Brandeis University. He contributed music for the 1959 film Shadows and a few others. He was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1971, and in 1997 was given a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The National Endowment for the Arts also granted a Mingus Foundation to catalog all of his works, which is when the entirety of Epitaph was discovered. In 2005, he was inducted into Jazz at Lincoln Center, Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.


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Additional Info

  • Birthday Date: Tuesday, 22 April 2014
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