Jazz Concepts: Why No One Sounds Like Charles Mingus

A Celebration Of The Bass Legend's 100th Birthday

Jazz Concepts: Why No One Sounds Like Charles Mingus

A Celebration Of The Bass Legend's 100th Birthday

He played with reckless abandon, embraced the joy of music making, and performed with a fervor displayed by few musicians. His music, a symphony of contradictions, used complex harmony that somehow always sounded like the blues. He came up in the bebop era, but he was a trailblazer in the realm of free jazz. An unusual mix of influences, including his German, Chinese, Native American, and African-American heritage and an obsessive quest to create great art, contributed to his development as a human being and musician. As Mingus said in what has become a popular meme, “Whatever coast he’s on, a man should be himself. I don’t write in any particular idiom. I write Charles Mingus.”

Born on April 22, 1922, Charles Mingus was the subject of countless tributes last year, the 100th anniversary of his birth. Mingus is known as a composer, bandleader of small and large ensembles, pianist, political activist, and above all, an incredible bass player. By the time he died on January 5, 1979, his stature as legendary musician and social commentator was secure. Only a few bass-playing, band-leading composers — Oscar Pettiford, Jaco Pastorius, Dave Holland, Christian McBride, and a handful of others — rank alongside Mingus in lasting influence and pure bass-awesomeness.       

A look at Mingus’ life and music forms a complex Venn diagram encompassing widely disparate areas of influence: a virtuoso bassist who began his musical training on trombone and cello; a strong pianist and composer; a musical upbringing in church (the Holiness Pentecostal Church in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles); a deep connection to the blues; a love for the jazz tradition (especially Duke Ellington); participation in the bebop revolution of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; a pioneer of the free jazz movement; a composer of ambitious works for large and small ensembles; a bandleader who supported, inspired, threatened, and challenged his musicians to excellence; a person of color who spoke out in text and music for civil rights.    

Guided by Mingus’ story, how can you strive to raise your level of musicianship? Key factors include the many diverse influences that Mingus embraced and endured because of his life circumstances. He lived his life and turned it into art on a very high level. The way to open yourself to a Mingus level of excellence is to make life choices that lead to magnificent journeys. Don’t be fearful; always look forward, never back. As Mingus might say, “Don’t be afraid — the clown’s afraid, too.”

Let’s listen to some of the albums that made Mingus a jazz legend. Here are my favorites, although there are certainly other recordings and videos that warrant close study.

A Loose Progression Of Some Of Mingus’ Most Important Musical Achievements

In his early professional years, Mingus played with notable musicians like Barney Bigard, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Red Norvo, and Lionel Hampton — check out the virtuosic bass feature “Mingus Fingers” with Hamp’s band.

Pithecanthropus Erectus [1956, Atlantic]

Recorded in the mid ’50s, Pithecanthropus Erectus introduced Charles Mingus as an influential bandleader. He had made recordings as a bandleader before, but this album put him on the forefront of the jazz scene. The album title refers to the Java Man fossil. Mingus writes in the liner notes about the hominid, whose greed and attempts to enslave his fellow man eventually caused his downfall. Even on this early album, Mingus is calling for awareness of how people treat each other in society.

Compositionally, Pithecanthropus Erectus was a genre-bending departure from the typical swing and bebop styles of the day. In the liner notes Mingus writes, “My whole conception with my present Jazz Workshop group deals with nothing written. 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 with the scale and chord progressions to be used. Each man’s own particular style is taken into consideration, both in ensemble and in solos.”

It’s interesting that Mingus writes about “scale and chord progressions.” In 1953, George Russell produced the first method book that deals with chord/scale theory (Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization), but Mingus is possibly the first practicing musician to mention the concept as one of his compositional tools.

The Clown [1957, Atlantic]

From the opening notes of the solo bass intro on “Haitian Fight Song,” Mingus signals an ominous feeling of aggressive blues — an aural definition of jazz on the bass. His playing fires an intense energy that calls and demands that the other musicians follow. In the liner notes by Nat Hentoff, Mingus says, “I’d say this song has a contemporary folk feeling. My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me.’”

Tijuana Moods [1962, recorded 1957, RCA]

Tijuana Moods was one of my go-to albums when I first began listening to Charles Mingus as a young bassist. This collection of Mexican-influenced grooves and melodies is fusion music of the highest order. Mingus the jazz composer embraces the sounds and styles that he found in his musical tool shed: European classical, Spanish flamenco, Mexican mariachi, African-American gospel, jazz, bebop, and blues.

In contrast to the Latin flavor of the album’s other compositions, “Dizzy Moods” is a bebop tribute to Dizzy Gillespie. The harmony reflects Dizzy’s tune “Woody n’ You.” Mingus’ “Dizzy moods” features eight-bar A sections in 4/4 with some unexpected harmonic twists, and a bridge in 3/4.

The other tunes on the album echo Mingus’ experiences during a trip to Tijuana. “Ysabel’s Table Dance” and “Tijuana Gift Shop” are standout tracks, combining cutting-edge bebop with the musical flavor of Tijuana culture.

Mingus Ah-Um [1959, Columbia]

The year 1959 was a magic apex in jazz history. Several albums released that year became cornerstones of the jazz tradition:

1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue [Columbia, with Paul Chambers on bass]

2. John Coltrane, Giant Steps [Blue Note, with Paul Chambers on bass]

3. Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, Moanin’ [recorded in 1958, Blue Note, with Jymie Merritt on bass]

4. Dave Brubeck, Time Out [Columbia, with Eugene Wright on bass]

5. Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come [Atlantic, with Charlie Haden on bass]

6. Duke Ellington, Anatomy of a Murder [Columbia, with Jimmy Woode on bass]

7. Bill Evans, Portrait in Jazz [released 1960, Riverside, with Scott LaFaro on bass]

8. Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah-Um [Columbia]

By the late ’50s, Mingus had secured his reputation as a top bandleader on the scene while continuing to set a high standard for technique on the bass. He sounded different from the other popular bassists of the day — Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Red Mitchell, Scott LaFaro. Mingus had his own deeply personal sound and style. He was in his late 30s, at the top of his game, and yet he would continue to explore and grow musically in the years to follow.

Mingus Ah-Um celebrates some of the players and styles that Mingus held dear to his heart. With his intricate and blusey composition “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus pays tribute to the late tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had passed away shortly before this recording. “Jelly Roll” is his homage to Jelly Roll Morton, one of the pioneers of early jazz in the ’20s. “Open Letter to Duke” is a suite in four parts, inspired by the long-form jazz writing of Duke Ellington. “Pussy Cat Dues” romps in the style of New Orleans jazz, with Mingus showing off some nice slap bass, and featuring a 12-bar blues that begins in D and modulates to Eb in the middle of the melody chorus.

Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus [1961, Candid]

I couldn’t get enough of Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus when I first heard the album back in the ’70s. I listened to it day and night, trying to understand what these guys were doing. The group consisted of only bass (Mingus), drums (Dannie Richmond), trumpet (Ted Curson), and saxophone/bass clarinet (Eric Dolphy). No piano or guitar! Everything was so structured and melodic, yet rhythmically and emotionally free. This was probably the first time I heard a group working with no chordal instrument, and that open sound and feeling has intrigued me ever since. Mingus’ interplay with bass clarinetist Dolphy on “What Love” (loosely based on the harmony to “What Is This Thing Called Love”) offers an experience in collective improvisation on the highest level. With so much room for the bass, Mingus sounds larger than life.

Hearing Mingus’ speaking voice throughout the album also inspires me. He makes announcements as if this were a live performance, even though it’s a studio album. His forceful admonishments to a non-existent audience help me understand the respect that he demands of his listeners — don’t make noise, no applause, and no rattling of glasses. This rendition of “Original Faubus Fables” features Mingus and Dannie Richmond singing and trading off to tell the story of Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus, who in 1957 tried to prevent the integration of a Little Rock city school. Jazz and politics. “Original Faubus Fables” uses metric modulations as an integral part of the composition’s form and vibe. Mingus and Richmond slip in and out of quarter-note triplets and double-time grooves to create a wild rollercoaster ride of thrilling rhythm-section fluency. This take demonstrates the possibility of shifting meters on the fly within the structure of a typical jazz tune. Nowadays, it’s a typical party trick — a standard rhythm-section technique.

On the final track, “All the Things You Could Be By Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother,” Mingus and the quartet deliver an explosive performance based on the harmonic structure of “All the Things You Are.” What strikes me is his fast, 4/4 count-off into the head: One … one, two, three … and bang, the band takes flight.

Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Money Jungle [1963, United Artists]

As I’ve mentioned, Mingus was a huge fan of Duke Ellington, who was 23 years older. Mingus idolized Ellington in his early years, even calling himself Charles “Baron” Mingus on his first recordings to imply a moniker of jazz royalty. Mingus eventually worked with Ellington’s band in 1953 but was fired after a backstage altercation with trombonist Juan Tizol. The pairing on Money Jungle of Ellington, Mingus, and drummer Max Roach for a trio date in 1963 made musical and business sense, but the date was not without problems. Mingus ended up leaving the studio in the middle of the session because of an argument.

Fortunately for us, there was quite a bit of music recorded that day, and the album has been issued and re-issued with all the outtakes. The strength of this musical adventure lies in the powerful personalities of three giant musicians. Each player is so strong that they could all do their thing without taking the other players out of their groove — they are often playing “separately together,” as drummer Adam Nussbaum likes to say. The first track, “Money Jungle,” begins with Mingus pulling his G string off the side of the fingerboard to make an aggressive “don’t mess with me” sound. The tune eventually morphs into a blues with Mingus walking quarter-notes, then going nuts in thumb position, trilling, playing glissandi, and flying up and down the fingerboard. Throughout the track, Ellington and Max are swinging. The album is worth hearing for the amazing performances of three giants of jazz who somehow all did their own thing on their own terms — together.

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady [1963, Impulse]

The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady ranks as the most ambitious Mingus large-ensemble album, and one of the most important jazz albums in history. When I was first turned on to this recording in the ’70s by my guitarist friend, we would listen over and over to the transitions between movements, especially the solo classical-guitar passages played by Jay Berliner. Mingus had workshopped this band for six weeks at New York’s Village Vanguard. Working together with arranger Bob Hammer, Mingus created a compelling and enduring jazz masterpiece.

Mingus wrote the liner notes to the album, which in the original pressing were included as an extra sheet with the record. (Hello, streaming services? We need digital liner notes to albums!) Mingus name-checks and thanks each musician in the 11-piece band for their contribution to the project, and then finishes by explaining his motivation behind the music: “Last and least is me. Mingus. I wrote the music for dancing and listening. It is true music with much and many of my meanings. It is my living epitaph from birth til the day I first heard of Bird and Diz. Now it is me again.

“This music is only one little wave of styles and waves of little ideas my mind has encompassed through living in a society that calls itself sane, as long as you’re not behind iron bars where there at least one can’t be half as crazy as in most of the ventures our leaders take upon themselves to do and think for us, even to the day we should be blown up to preserve their idea of how life should be. Crazy? They’d never get out of the observation ward at Bellevue. I did. So, listen how. Play this record.”

Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus [1964, Impulse!]

Mingus reassembled the ensemble from Black Saint and the Sinner Lady for his following album, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. The bass playing and music here is incredibly strong, but Mingus focuses more on individual compositions rather than the long-form writing heard on Black Saint. Possibly because of publishing issues, for this date Mingus renamed some of his well-known pieces that had already been recorded on other albums:

“II B.S.” is “Haitian Fight Song,” “Theme for Lester” is “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and “Hora Decubitus” is “Es Flat, Ahs Flat Too.”

When I give my History of Jazz Bass lectures at various colleges and workshops, I play “II B.S.” for the students. Hearing the pure power and vibe of Mingus’ intro makes everyone a bit uncomfortable at first, before they are hypnotized by the relentless walking groove that Mingus lays down. It’s just a minor blues — four minutes and 43 seconds of pure, swinging, aggressive blues. I often tell my bass students that they need to hypnotize their fellow musicians and audience with their quarter-notes, and this is a perfect example of what I mean.

Changes One [1974, Atlantic]

Changes Two [1974, Atlantic]

After recording some of the greatest jazz albums in the ’50s and ’60s, Mingus took a hiatus due to health problems. He came back strong in 1974 with a new quintet that continued in the Mingus tradition of pushing the boundaries of tradition. The new quintet was anchored by his longtime rhythm section partner Dannie Richmond, and included George Adams (tenor sax), Jack Walrath (trumpet), and Don Pullen (piano).   

The sound of these recordings is definitively from the 1970s: clear bass; tight, high-pitched drums and cymbals; crystal-clear horns and piano. To be honest, I miss the recorded sound from the ’50s and ’60s — but the music on Changes One & Changes Two is happening. A weathered 52 years old, Mingus is an elder statesman on these recordings, but he has not lost his fire or creativity.

Three or Four Shades of Blues [1977, Atlantic, with George Mraz, Ron Carter, and Charles Mingus on bass]

Three or Four Shades of Blues is not a release that often shows up in best-of Mingus lists. He plays bass only on the title track, but I was listening to the album when it came out in ’77 because of the other two bassists who share the low-end duties: George Mraz and Ron Carter. It’s interesting to hear those master players, serving the music of another master.

In the ’70s, I was getting into jazz from a fusion perspective, and I thought this odd lineup that included Phillip Catherine, John Scofield, and Larry Coryell on guitars was a cool idea, and I think the executives at Atlantic Records probably had the same idea. As a young fusion enthusiast, I was their target audience for a project with Mingus, the aging straight-ahead jazz legend.

Once you’re familiar with Mingus’ music on his earlier recordings, Three or Four Shades of Blues stands on its own — a big-budget production from his late period. Mingus would not be around long after this album was recorded.

Joni Mitchell, Mingus [1979, Asylum, Jaco Pastorius on bass]

Next to his performance on Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life, this is Jaco Pastorius’ best recorded performance. So I say! Okay, there is also Mitchell’s album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Jaco’s Weather Report recordings, his first solo album, Word of Mouth — but I love Jaco’s vibe and interplay on the Mingus album. Let the bickering begin!

Mingus was suffering from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) through the mid ’70s, and he couldn’t play the bass on what would become his final project, although the master bassist/bandleader/composer contributed all of the compositions for the sessions. In addition, he was caught on mic doing a bit of scat singing and talking about the details of his funeral in a matter-of-fact way.

Mitchell created amazing performances that brought Mingus’ music successfully into the electric fusion age of jazz. The standout tracks are “God Must Be a Boogie Man” (with some tasty trademark Jaco bass harmonics), “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” (funky 12-bar blues with Jaco’s horn arrangement), and the Mingus classic “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” -BM


1. Watch and listen to Charles Mingus rehearsing his supergroup with Eric Dolphy in 1964.

2. From the same European tour in 1964, here’s the Charles Mingus Quintet in Belgium.

3. Triumph of the Underdog is a full-length documentary about Mingus the musician, the composer, the artist, and man.

4. From the 1965 television broadcast Jazz: The Experimenters, the Charles Mingus septet pushes the boundaries of modern jazz.

5. This clip shows Mingus with one of his later bands in 1975 (still with drummer Dannie Richmond)!


John Goldsby has played a lot of Mingus’ music over the years. Listen to this version of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” from his latest trio album, Segment. Hear John’s version of “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” here. And check out his new video lesson series on bass soloingTell Your Story — at DiscoverDoubleBass.com and johngoldsby.com.

John Goldsby   By: John Goldsby

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