As well as being one of the most accomplished bassists of the 1950s and 1960s, Mingus was among the most original and prolific composers in jazz. He began writing during his teenage years in Los Angeles, where he started playing with musicians associated with the city's Central Avenue jazz district, such as the Woodman brothers, saxophonist Buddy Collette, and the teacher and trumpeter Lloyd Reese.
He recorded with several of these players, notably in his octet, under the name 'Baron Mingus'. He also made his name on a national level, playing with Louis Armstrong's orchestra (1942), Lionel Hampton (1947-8) and with vibes player Red Norvo (1950-51). He moved to New York, and worked with many players including (briefly) Duke Ellington, and pianist Bud Powell, (with whom he also appeared in the famous 1953 Massey Hall concert with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker).
In the mid-1950s he began writing and playing in a workshop context, and from 1955 led a series of 'Jazz Workshop' groups on the basis of ongoing development and change of his compositions. His personnel changed rapidly too, but some musicians such as drummer Dannie Richmond, and pianist Jaki Byard spent long spells with the group, as did saxophonists John Handy, Booker Ervin, Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk and Charles McPherson.
Trombonist Jimmy Knepper was another regular associate. Mingus produced a stream of compositions, many of them exploring his African-American heritage, and most of them encapsulated in more than one version on his steady flow of albums including: Tijuana Moods (1957); Blues and Roots (1959); Ah Um (1959); Mingus! (1960); Oh Yeah (1961); and Black Saint and The Sinner Lady (1963).
His output of discs and new music was coupled with continual touring or work in New York clubs. Mingus was always of fiery temperament, and in 1966, his psychological troubles came to a head, and together with the strained finances of running a group such as his, he stopped performing for four years. In late 1969, Mingus returned to the stage, playing internationally until the onset of Lou Gehrig's disease forced him to stop working in 1977. His small group music was kept alive by the band Mingus Dynasty, and the Mingus Big Band (under the direction of his widow, Sue) continues to perform his big band music.