9.25: Charles Mingus
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Jazz composer, bassist, and band leader Charles Mingus is one of the most creative proponents of modern jazz. Born in Arizona in 1922, he grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where in school he studied trombone, cello, and bass, learning both jazz and classical techniques. He toured with big bands led by Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton before moving to New York in the early 1950s. There he worked with bop musicians Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell before staring his own ensemble in the mid-1950s. During this period he became active in New York’s Jazz Composer’s Workshop, and eventually abandoned written transcription and began dictating his compositions to his players by ear, allowing them considerable room for personal interpretation. By the early 1960s he had established himself as the premiere bassist in jazz, and a leading composer for both big band and small ensemble formats.
Mingus drew on many styles, ranging from blues, gospel, and big-band swing to bebop and modern jazz that featured dissonant, collective improvisation. Among his best know compositions are the bluesy Haitian Fight Song (1957), the extended jazz suite Pithecanthropus Erectus (1956) that chronicles the rise and decline of modern civilization with a finale of cacophonous improvisation, and the classical sounding Half-mast Inhibition (1960). Mingus objected to categories like “classical” and “jazz,” choosing rather to construct extended works that combined compositional forms, themes, and complex harmonic changes associated with classical music with techniques of individual and group improvisation, complex rhythms, and tonal elements of blues and gospel common to jazz.
Perhaps the most important jazz composer of the mid 20th century, Mingus summed up his creative philosophy on liner notes to the 1956 Pithecanthropus Erectus LP:
I “write” compositions — but only on mental score paper — then I lay out the composition part by part to the musicians. I play them the “framework” on piano so that they are all familiar with my interpretation and feeling and with the scale and chord progressions to be used. Each man’s own particular style is taken into consideration, both in ensembles and in solos….In this way, I find it possible to keep my own compositional flavor in the pieces and yet to allow the musicians more individual freedom in the creation of their group lines and solos.