This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Charles Mingus was born on April 22, 1922, in Nogales, Az., and was raised in Watts in southern Los Angeles. At an early age, Mingus was engrossed in the music of the church (the only music that his step-mother allowed around the house), and he often engaged in choir and group singing. At eight years old, Mingus heard the melodic voice of Duke Ellington over the radio, and soon developed a serious passion for jazz music. As a teenager, Mingus began to study “double bass and composition in a formal way,” while simultaneously absorbing first hand a vernacular for jazz through some of the earlier greats. In the 1940s, Mingus began touring with artists such as Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Kid Ory.
By the 1950s, Mingus settled in New York and began playing and recording with some of the world’s leading musicians, such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and even Duke Ellington. A rarity as a bassist, Mingus impressively emerged as a “leader of musicians,” and by the 1960s, had formed his own recording and publishing companies in an effort to document and protect his “growing repertoire of original music.” By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mingus wrote more than 300 scores and recorded more than 100 albums. Some noteworthy albums include: Pithecanthropus Erectus, The Clown, Mingus Dynasty, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Cumbia and Jazz Fusion and Let My Children Hear Music.
Until his sudden death in 1979, Mingus remained at the forefront of American music, and often, championed some of the most politically powerful protest songs. Mingus received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Smithsonian Institute and many other honourable recognitions for his impactful role in the world of jazz. He continues to be an inspiration to various artists today.