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Charles Mingus: A Life of Jazz and Social Justice in Our Midst

Charles Mingus (April 22, 1922 – January 5, 1979) has earned a well-deserved fame and notoriety over a lifetime of performance, composition, and controversy. The ‘bad boy’ of jazz was known as a brilliant innovator, a searing commentator on the civil rights struggles of his day, and a sometimes tempestuous performer or collaborator. As is often the case with those placed in the Pantheon of their field, he’s also frequently thought of as a man of the world, rather than a specific place. But in fact much of Mingus’ life was lived and achievements accomplished in our neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo.

Whether performing at the Village Vanguard in 1969 or collaborating with fellow jazz icons during Sunday sessions at the Five Spot Café, Mingus left his mark throughout the East Village as a performer and civil rights activist. Mingus lived at, intended to open a school at, and was notoriously and unceremoniously evicted from 5 Great Jones Street in NoHo in the 1970s. Near the end of his career, Mingus resided at 39-41 East 10th Street, shared with his wife Sue Mingus. He stayed at this Greenwich Village location, until he traveled to Mexico to treat his diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, eventually succumbing to it in 1979. He left behind a decades-long musical career, marked by his impact on the Civil Rights movement and multifaceted, genre-bending music.

Mingus’ career contained compositions that provided commentary on the civil rights movement and the seemingly boundless obstacles faced by African Americans during the 50s and 60s. One particular piece, “Fables of Faubus,” was written as a protest against Governor Orval Faubus, the Arkansas leader known for sending the National Guard to prevent integration at Little Rock High School. 

His music was also known for the wide range of genres it included. From notes of ragtime to fully avant-garde productions, Mingus was soon established as one of the more unique figures in Jazz music. But despite his record of creativity and musical genius, his work was underestimated and overlooked by some both throughout his life and since his death.
“Bi Centennial, Lower Manhattan” / Tom Marcello, 1976

Throughout his lifetime, though, there were always passionate fans of his work. These included both everyday jazz fanatics and many of those who worked directly with Mingus. One of the members of his band, Charles McPherson, recalls fondly the experience of working with Mingus in the 1960s. Mingus, sometimes known for his fierce personality, was a perfectionist when it came to the production of his work. Occasionally stopping shows to silence audience-member chatter or pause rehearsal to express his distaste with the band’s performance, Mingus had strict expectations for music, and rightfully so. 

Although he had high expectations, he was also remembered as warm, tender, and empathetic to those around him. This duality was also reflected in his music, including themes of sympathy, eclecticism, elegance, and even pure chaos; the many dimensions of his discography accurately portrayed the transitions of life. His last piece of work, a collaboration with Joni Mitchell, was released six months after his passing in 1979, but still lives on as one of Mitchell’s greatest works.

Getty Images / Michael Ochs, 1962

You can learn more about Charles Mingus and other revolutionary figures of our neighborhood using Village Preservation’s South of Union Square map. Using these tools, you can visit the exact spots in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo that were crucial to the creation of our storied past. 

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