The Story of Charles Mingus

By Phin Upham

Born in Nogales Arizona, Charles Mingus was the third child to an Army Sergeant. Mingus’ mother died shortly after she gave birth to him, just after the family relocated to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Mingus found an outlet in music, playing both the trombone and the cello from an early age. By his teens, he’d switched over to a bass, studying under Red Callendar and Herman Rheinschagen.

Mingus got his professional start under Louis Armstrong, playing bass for his band before playing for Kid Ory. By the late 1940s, he’d begun performing with Lionel Hampton and touring with Red Norvo and his trio. By 1951, life brought Mingus to New York, where he found work performing with legends like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

Mingus was an accomplished soloist, known for his diverse influences. He frequently mentioned Duke Ellington as a major inspiration, but his work has hints of New Orleans jazz clearly present. Mingus used complex rhythms in conjunction with dissonant harmony to make his music. One can even hear Mexican musical influences in the work of Mingus.

He recorded over 100 albums in his career, the most popular being “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat.” His career was not without its share of difficulty. Mingus was known for erratic behavior on and off stage, with a temper that could end in violence.

He was also suffering from mental illness, which manifested at the beginning of the 60s. By the early 70s, Mingus was saddled with crippling debt in addition to his other difficulties. He was diagnosed with Lou Gherig’s disease, and died in Mexico of a heart attack as he sought help for it.