Today is the birthday of legendary jazz bassist, bandleader, and composer Charles Mingus, sometimes known as “The Angry Man of Jazz,” born in Nogales, Arizona, in 1922. Raised in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, his earliest musical influences were the gospel choirs he heard in church, and Duke Ellington on the radio. He was classically trained on the double bass, but found his home in jazz, and in the 1940s toured with Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton.
In the early 1950s, he settled in New York and worked with Billy Taylor, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell. He also performed with Charlie Parker, who radically transformed Mingus’s perceptions of jazz. He began to focus more heavily on composition in the middle of the decade, and borrowed elements from bebop, rhythm and blues, classical, and gospel music to create a style that strongly resisted a label. In his 40-year career, he recorded more than 60 albums, including Wonderland (1959) and Tijuana Moods (1962).
He was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in the mid-1970s, and though the disease affected his ability to play the bass, he still composed by humming into a tape recorder. He died in 1979, and his ashes were scattered in the Ganges River. After his death, an archivist discovered a complex and remarkably difficult composition, numbering more than 4,000 measures, called “Epitaph.” A portion of the jazz symphony had been performed by Mingus and a 31-piece band in 1962, but the musicians weren’t up to such a challenging composition, and Mingus put the full two-and-a-half-hour score in the closet, never to revisit it in his lifetime. The entire 500-page score was organized and assembled, and in 1989 it had its premiere at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, 10 years after Mingus’s death.
He wrote: “Let my children have music! Let them hear live music. Not noise. My children! You do what you want with your own!”