An accomplished bassist, pianist and bandleader, Charles Mingus is perhaps best-remembered today for his work as a composer. Between 1943 and his death in 1979, he composed and arranged numerous influential works of jazz – his final composition, Epitath, was appropriately never performed until after his death.
Mingus was a perfectionist, especially as a bandleader, and was notorious for his temper – he was widely known as ‘the Angry Man of Jazz‘ – but most of the musicians he worked with agreed that his perfectionism most often brought out the best in their performances.
Mingus never believed that his ground-breaking composition would be performed while he lived – hence his title. He stated that he had written it “for my tombstone.” If it was an epitaph, it could scarcely have been a better one, for all that it was more than a decade since his death.
The manuscript was only found after his death, when Mingus’ works were being catalogued. In this, its first performance, the concert was produced by Sue Graham Mingus, his widow, and played by a 30-piece orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller. Schuller later stated that Epitaph was “among the most important, prophetic, creative statement in the history of jazz,” and The New Yorker wrote that Epitaph represents the first advance in jazz composition since Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige which was written in 1943.