Charles Mingus, 56, the bassist, composer and a renowned figure in jazz for a quarter century, died Friday in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He had been suffering since 1977 from a degenerative muscular condition commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Born in Nogales, Ariz., Mingus was raised in Los Angeles, where he began studying bass with Red Callender at the age of 16. During the 1940s he worked with Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Lionel Hampton and others.
He later toured with the Red Norvo Trio and settled in New York, where he played in combos led by Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and others.
In the late 1950s, Mingus achieved international fame as a composer and catalyst, in whose various bands countless important musicians came to prominence. As a virtuoso of the bass, he won the Down Beat poll annually from 1963 to 1966.
Mingus’ music was aimed at the extension of the horizons of jazz. He drew on many sources, gospel and folk music among them, and often recreated the works of Duke Ellington, in whose orchestra he had worked briefly.
A brilliant man of strong convictions, he was outspoken on racial and social matters and became a storm center in many confrontations during his peak years. His autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog,” was published in 1971.
Ten years ago Mingus went into semi-retirement because of ill health. He returned in 1972 and toured Europe, where he was idolized by jazz students. He continued to work in New York night clubs off and on until illness forced him to stop.
His last important appearance was a nonplaying one last June when he was seen, in a wheelchair, at the White House Jazz Festival. Introduced by George Wein, he was embraced warmly by President Carter in the concert’s most poignant moment.
“Mingus went to Mexico to seek medical help,” said his childhood friend, Buddy Collette, the saxophonist. “He had planned to come to Los Angeles next week to revisit old friends.”
Mingus’ body was cremated in Mexico. A memorial concert will be arranged soon by Collette and other early associates. He leaves his wife, two sisters, three sons and two daughters.