Charles Mingus Jr. was born on April 22, 1922 in Nogales, Arizona of Chinese, English, African and Swedish heritage. His mother allowed only church-related music in their home, but Mingus developed an early love for jazz, especially the music of Duke Ellington. He first studied trombone, later adding cello, which prepared him for the double bass in high school. He studied five years with H. Rheinshagen, principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic and compositional techniques with Lloyd Reese.
Beginning in his teen years, Mingus was writing quite advanced pieces incorporating elements of classical music. A number of them were recorded in 1960 with conductor Gunther Schuller and released as “Pre-Bird”, referring to Charlie “Bird” Parker. Mingus was one of many musicians whose perspectives on music were altered by Parker into “pre- and post-Bird” eras.
Gaining a reputation as a bass prodigy, his first major professional job was playing with former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard. This followed by a tour with Louis Armstrong in 1943 that led to his recording in a band led by Russell Jacquet that included Teddy Edwards and Chico Hamilton. He went onto record with Howard McGhee and into the late ‘40s played with Lionel Hampton’s band performing several of his pieces.
A popular Mingus trio had Red Norvo and Tal Farlow in tow in the early 50s with considerable acclaim but his mixed heritage caused problems with club owners and he left the group. Charles was briefly a member of Ellington’s band until his temper got him fired. He went on to record and play with Max Roach, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Pepper Adams, Jaki Byard, Horace Parlan, Booker Ervin, John Handy, Charles McPherson, Eric Dolphy and Johnny Coles among others through the Sixties and into the next decade. By the mid-1970s, Mingus was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease that eventually stopped his playing, leaving him to continue composing and supervising recordings prior to his death on January 5, 1979 at age 56 in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Composer, bandleader, bassist and civil rights activist Charles Mingus left a legacy of an autobiography, Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Orchestra, the Charles Mingus High School Competition, the catalogue of Mingus compositions in the Music Division of the New York Public Library and the collected papers of Charles Mingus housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Junko Onishi was born April 16, 1967 in Kyoto, Japan and studied piano at Berklee College of Music. She then moved to New York City where she played with Joe Henderson, Betty Carter, Kenny Garrett and the Mingus Dynasty but has also worked with Jackie McLean, Holly Cole, Billy Higgins and many others.
Primarily playing in the post-bop genre, Junko cites her influences as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman but one can hear McCoy Tyner, Kenny Kirkland and Mulgrew Miller’s influences in her playing. As a leader she has recorded nine albums on Blue Note Records label Somethin’ Else.
Choosing to study and practice she stopped performing in the late Nineties and when her mentor, Jaki Byard passed away she stopped playing completely for two years. Redeveloping her technique Onishi returned to playing and started a gym regimen to help her cope with the physical rigors of playing.
She appears in the 1997 documentary “Blue Note: A Story Of Modern Jazz playing the song “Trinity” and “Quick” from her album Play, Piano, Play: Junko Onishi Trio in Europe. In 2009 she released her Blue Note album “Musical Moments” followed by her Verve large band project “Baroque”. She continues to perform, record and tour worldwide.
Cecil Percival Taylor was born March 25, 1929 in New York City and began playing piano and classical training at age six. He studied at the New York College of Music and New England Conservatory. After first steps in R&B and swing-styled small groups in the early 1950s, he formed his own band with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy in 1956, in which he release his first recording Jazz Advance.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Taylor’s music grew more complex and moved away from existing jazz styles. Gigs were often hard to come by, and club owners found Taylor’s approach to performance (long pieces) unhelpful in conducting business. Forming his group The Unit in 1961 with Jimmy Lyons, Sunny Murray and later Andrew Cyrille produced landmark recordings, like “Unit Structures” in 1966, they continued to record although sporadically and many of his recording sessions remained unreleased for sometimes decades.
By the 70s he was performing solo concerts and Taylor’s work began to be released for the next two decades, garnering critical if not popular acclaim. He began lecturing at universities, was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, performed a White House lawn concert for President Jimmy Carter, was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, returned to the trio setting, collaborated with ballet companies and as an accomplished poet often incorporates his poems into his musical performances.
He is the co-founder of the Jazz Composers Guild to enhance the working possibilities of avant-garde musicians. Acknowledged as one of the pioneers of free jazz, his music is characterized by an extremely energetic, physical approach, producing complex improvised sounds, frequently involving tone clusters and intricate polyrhythms. His piano technique has been likened to percussion, described as “eighty-eight tuned drums” referring to the number of keys on a standard piano. He continues to perform, compose and record.
Nathaniel Charles Gonella was born March 7, 1908 in East London, England and took up cornet as a child while at St. Mary’s Guardian School, an institution for underprivileged children. His first professional job interrupted his stint as a furrier’s apprentice when he joined Archie Pitt’s Busby Boy’s Band in 1924. He remained with the band until 1928, and it was during this period that he became acquainted with the early recordings of Louis Armstrong and the New Orleans jazz style.
Nat played and recorded with many prominent jazz musicians, including Billy Cotton, Archie Alexander, Digby Fairweather, Lew Stone, Bob Bryden and Roy Fox. His distinctive vocal style was reminiscent of his idol, Louis Armstrong, though his voice was often eclipsed by his achievements as a bandleader and trumpeter.
Gonella’s standing grew even more quickly after the formation of his own band, “The Georgians”, in 1935, taking the name from his highly popular recording of “Georgia On My Mind” in 1932. He later formed a big band and quickly became a headliner on the variety circuit.
Nat flirted briefly with bebop but returned to the variety stage until a revival of tradition jazz came in the late Fifties. His performing and recording success lasted until the advent of The Beatles in the Sixties, however he toured the northern club circuit and over the next thirty years he continued to sing occasionally with various bands until his death in Gosport on August 6, 1998 at age 90.
Big Bill Bissonnette was born February 5, 1937 in Bridgeport, Connecticut who became a jazz trombonist and producer. A strong advocate of New Orleans jazz played by Black musicians in the Sixties he led his group The Easy Riders Jazz Band.
During that period Bill also established his own Jazz Crusade label and organized northern tours for such veterans as Kid Thomas Valentine, George Lewis and Jim Robinson. After a period off the jazz scene, Bill successfully published of his 1992 memoirs, “The Jazz Crusade” that told many stories about New Orleans’ musicians.
Bissonnette reactivated his label and began to play trombone again. He has produced and recorded over 100 jazz sessions for his Jazz Crusade label, appearing as trombonist or drummer on over 50 recording sessions of New Orleans jazz.
He has spent much of the 1990s documenting the British jazz scene with his “Best of the Brits” CD series. He published a newsletter several times a year. Trombonist, drummer, producer, bandleader and writer retired from music and now resides in Concord, North Carolina in 2006.