Charles Mingus was born one hundred years ago today on April 22, 1922. He is one of the most captivating figures in this most American of art forms. Mingus’s three biggest influences were Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and the Black Church. He also had a firm grasp of classical music which served him well when composing in longer form. Charles Mingus was working on another level. In terms of his personality two figures with whom I have always equated him were John Lennon and Frank Sinatra. Like those two, he was supremely talented and intelligent; all three could, and would, cut through the b.s. in any situation. Also like them, his personality was a combination of generosity and sensitivity interspersed with sexism, occasional violence, and gratuitous verbal cruelty. The hardest part in knowing Mingus would have been the unpredictability.
He died in 1979 of ALS, a cruel fate for any person let alone such an outsized figure as he was. Mingus Big Band was–and is–an ensemble put together by his widow Sue Mingus to keep the bassist and composer’s work in the public sphere.