Jazz Music

Charles Mingus - Moanin'

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Charles MingusFrom the 1960's until his death in 1979 at age 56, Charles Mingus remained in the forefront of American music. When asked to comment on his accomplishments, Mingus said that his abilities as a bassist were the result of hard work but that his talent for composition came from God.

One of the most important figures in twentieth century American music, Charles Mingus was a virtuoso bass player, accomplished pianist, bandleader and composer. Born on a military base in Nogales, Arizona in 1922 and raised in Watts, California, his earliest musical influences came from the church– choir and group singing– and from “hearing Duke Ellington over the radio when [he] was eight years old.” He studied double bass and composition in a formal way (five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, and compositional techniques with the legendary Lloyd Reese) while absorbing vernacular music from the great jazz masters, first-hand. His early professional experience, in the 40′s, found him touring with bands like Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory and Lionel Hampton.

Mingus, whose sisters trained on violin and piano, started out playing the trombone. When his instructor proved less than able, Mingus taught himself the basics of the instrument by ear. He grew frustrated, however, and soon switched to the cello, earning a spot in the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic while still in elementary school. In high school he switched again, to the double bass, and joined future jazz greats Dexter Gordon, a saxophonist, and Chico Hamilton, a drummer, in an orchestra. He began studying his new instrument privately with jazz musicians Joe Comfort and Red Callender, as well as Herman Rheinschagen, a former bassist with the New York Philharmonic. Mingus also studied composition with Lloyd Reese and turned out two compositions, "What Love" (1939) and "Half-Mast Inhibitions" (1940), that he would record 20 years later.

Mingus began playing professionally with jazz outfits in Los Angeles and San Francisco while still in high school. In 1940 he replaced his former teacher, Callender, in a band headed by Lee Young, a drummer and brother of noted saxophonist Lester Young. The following year, Mingus joined trumpeter Louis Armstrong's group, where he remained until 1943 and, under the name "Baron Mingus," began leading outfits of his own. In the mid-1940s he began playing with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and began to draw attention for his impossibly fast, highly charged solos. Critics would later note, as recounted by John Rockwell in a 1979 New York Times obituary, that Mingus's tendency to play slightly ahead of the beat lent his playing a "frenetic rhythmic tension." Mingus dropped music to take a job with the U.S. Postal Service for a period, and then returned to music in 1950, joining vibraphonist Red Norvo's trio. This ensemble has been credited with introducing West Coast "cool jazz" to a broad audience.

Mingus focused on collective improvisation, similar to the old New Orleans jazz parades, paying particular attention to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. In creating his bands, Mingus looked not only at the skills of the available musicians, but also their personalities. Many musicians passed through his bands and later went on to impressive careers. He recruited talented and sometimes little-known artists, whom he utilized to assemble unconventional instrumental configurations. As a performer, Mingus was a pioneer in double bass technique, widely recognized as one of the instrument's most proficient players.

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