Most of Mingus' music retained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop, and drew heavily from black gospel music while sometimes drawing on elements of avant garde jazz and free jazz. And yet Mingus avoided categorization, forging his own unique brand of music that fused tradition with unique and unexplored realms of jazz. Mingus was the heir apparent to Duke Ellington--a composer who superseded his contemporaries and created ideas so fresh and relevant that his body of work has been described in The New Yorker as "equal [to] anything written in western music in the twentieth century."
He often worked with a mid-sized ensemble (around 8-10 members) known as the Jazz Workshop. Mingus broke new ground with the constantly changing players demanding that his musicians be able to explore and develop their perceptions on the spot. Mingus refused to compromise his musical integrity which led to many onstage explosions (though it has been argued that his temper grew also from his desire to vent, such that a perfect show could irke him by closing his outlets for frustration). Those tapped to join the Workshop (or Sweatshops as they were colorfully dubbed by the musicians) were skilled tyros yearning for a taste of the big time. Mingus shaped these newbies into a cohesive improvizational machine that predated Avant Garde jazz by decades.
Mingus recorded and performed with many notable jazz musicians, including Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holliday, Jackie McLean, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy and Charlie Parker.
Mingus was prone to depression (possibly manic-depression). He tended to have brief periods of extreme creative activity, intermixed with fairly long periods of greatly decreased output.
Equally notorious was Mingus's onstage temper, which was at times directed at members of his band, and other times aimed at the audience. While on stage at a memorial concert he apparently attempted to crush his pianist's hands, then punched trombonist Jimmy Knepper in the mouth. Jackie McLean once stabbed Mingus after Mingus punched him, fearing that Mingus was about to kill him. Mingus's onstage destruction of an $800 bass, prompted brittish rockers the Animals, avid fans who witnessed Ming's characteristic explosion at a London show, to emulate the outburst, starting a trend of rampant outro destruction of musical equipment in 'rock theater' popularized by Hendrix and The Who, which continues to this day.
Major works include:
His autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, presents a vibrantly boastful and possibly apocryphal account of his early career as a pimp.
The music of Charles Mingus is currently being performed and reinterpreted by the Mingus Big Band, which plays every Thursday in New York City, and often tours the rest of the United States and Europe.