Charles Mingus was born on April 22, 1922 at a U.S. Army base in Nogales, Arizona. His father was the son of a black farmhand his mother was part Chinese. Mingus lived his younger years in Watts, California, where he was heavily influenced by the gospel music he’d hear at church. He also loved the classical music his sister would often play. After hearing the music of Duke Ellington, Mingus discovered his real love, jazz. He was devoted to music and practiced multiple instruments every day, enabling him to join Louis Armstrong’s band by the age of 21. In 1951, Mingus moved to New York City to begin playing with some of the greatest bebop musicians at the time including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Theloneous Monk, and Tal Farlow. He began to form his own ensemble in 1955 called the “Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop”. He wanted to create his own sound, not just play what others were already doing. The group was a combination of orchestra and classical music played by a small jazz group. Though they played written music, the group was based on improvisation. “Sue’s Changes” and “Self Portrait in Three Colors” are two songs that showcase the group well, as these resemble the general sound the group created. In the early 1950s, Mingus collaborated with the great Jazz guitarist, Tal Farlow in a trio with Red Norvo. Their biggest record was called “The Savoy Sessions”. It showed a younger and simpler Mingus who was new to the small-ensemble jazz scene. The album consists of 20 jazz standards and on tracks such as “Time and Tide” the musicians experiment with innovative sounds, many of which are apparent in Mingus’ latter works. Mingus’ rhythmic communication with Tal Farlow shows his true alertness and fast-paced energies of youth. Eric Dolphy was another multi-instrumentalist with whom Mingus frequently worked with during this time. Dolphy’s could play the alto-saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet, which added a great deal to Mingus’ pieces. In 1964 they formed a distinguished sextet with Jaki Byard, Johnny Coles, and Clifford Jordan. The group played renowned shows at Cornell University and the Town Hall theatre in New York. In the 1940s, Mingus mostly played “swing” as it transitioned into bebop. After moving to New York in the end of the 1950s Mingus moved away from this genre and began playing in his “chamber jazz” style while working with musicians such as Eric Dolphy, Jackie McLean and Roland Kirk. He also began working with spoken word artists through the late 50s and early 60s, something few jazz artists at the time were even thinking about. In the early 1970s Mingus released a record inspired by the music of Columbia entitled “Cumbia and Jazz Fusion”. Mingus changed styles drastically in his time. Some are simply unable to tell that some of his earlier work is even him. Even years after Mingus’ death, his final piece, an extended composition entitled “Epitath” was discovered and was premiered in 1989 by a 30-piece orchestra, something uncommon for the normal small jazz group. Conceptually, Mingus started his jazz career through Ellington inspired logics, but transitioned into a bebop stage rapidly. He recorded a live album, “Jazz at Massey Hall” which comprised of some of the best bebop musicians in that time. However, Mingus wanted to diverge from the path more than anything else. He didn’t want to play music that everyone else was playing. He wanted to create his own style that was definitively, “Mingus”. His compositions ranged wildly in mood and dynamics, from elaborate counterpoint to Wagner-like crescendos. When he worked with spoken word poets, he would freely improvise along with the words. Mingus’ conceptual dynamics were transidiomatic: while this type of methodology had never been done previously, Mingus’ music harked back to the New Orleans roots of jazz while looking to the future to with progressive chamber type jazz. As an instrumentalist, Mingus’ musical...
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Knopf, 1971. Print.
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