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Why Mingus Matters: An Intro to the Music and Legacy of Charles Mingus


Charles Mingus in 1976.

News | Apr, 20th 2018

Dive into the incredible range of Charles Mingus's music by checking out the Jazz at Lincoln Center-curated Spotify playlist of his music at the end of this blog post.

“Music is a language of emotions,” the bassist, composer, and bandleader Charles Mingus once said. Indeed, no one in Jazz expressed a wider range of emotions with more musical power than Mingus did, and aside from Duke Ellington, no one drew on as many musical sources of inspiration.

A master bassist whose big sound and brilliant technique on records continues to astonish musicians, Mingus was raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where he absorbed the sounds of the Holiness Church, while also studying classical music on the cello and the bass. During his early career he played alongside Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

As he developed as a composer, his music—by turns raucous and romantic, tender and turbulent—incorporated all that he had learned and experienced, while drawing on many styles from around the world. And yet, every piece of music was unmistakably Mingus’ own. “I play or write me,” he liked to say, and he called his output “Mingus Music.”

His musical methods were his own, too. At the helm of his Jazz Workshops, he often dictated his ideas, rather than write them down, and then encouraged the talented young musicians he was always engaging to improvise collectively, thus blurring the lines between soloists and sections. The result is singular: achieving a raw human intensity and fullness rarely encountered in any music.

Stricken with ALS, Mingus found himself increasingly unable to play his bass, and instead turned to composing. His final decade marked even greater depths of musical exploration, broader genre lines, and ambitious collaborations and large-scale works that sound unceasingly fresh, even more than four decades later.

Mingus took orders from no one. His art reflected that independence, as well as his sorrow and frustration at the world’s injustices. “My music is alive,” he said, “and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil.”

-Seton Hawkins, Director Education Resources and Public Programming at JALC

Mingus is included in our first list of 10 Essential Jazz Albums;check it out here.


**Photo by Tom Marcello, courtesy Wikimedia**


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