Charles Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona. He was raised largely in the Watts area of Los Angeles, California. His mother's paternal heritage was Chinese and English, while historical records indicate that his father was the illegitimate offspring of a black farmhand and his Swedish employer's white granddaughter.
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 studied trombone and later cello. Much of the cello technique he learned was applicable to double bass when he took up the instrument 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; many are similar to Third Stream because they incorporate 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.
Mingus gained a reputation as a bass prodigy. His first major professional job was playing with former Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard. He toured with Louis Armstrong in 1943, and by early 1945 was recording in Los Angeles in a band led by Russell Jacquet and which also included Teddy Edwards, Maurice Simon, Bill Davis and Chico Hamilton, and in May that year, in Hollywood, again with Teddy Edwards, in a band led by Howard McGhee. He then played with Lionel Hampton's band in the late 1940s; Hampton performed and recorded several of Mingus's pieces. A popular trio of Mingus, Red Norvo and Tal Farlow in 1950 and 1951 received considerable acclaim, but Mingus' mixed origin caused problems with club owners and he left the group. Mingus was briefly a member of Ellington's band in 1953, as a substitute for bassist Wendell Marshall. Mingus's notorious temper led to him being one of the few musicians personally fired by Ellington (Bubber Miley and drummer Bobby Durham are among the others), after an on-stage fight between Mingus and Juan Tizol.
Also in the early 1950s, before attaining commercial recognition as a bandleader, Mingus played gigs with Charlie Parker, whose compositions and improvisations greatly inspired and influenced him. Mingus considered Parker the greatest genius and innovator in jazz history, but he had a love-hate relationship with Parker's legacy. Mingus blamed the Parker mythology for a derivative crop of pretenders to Parker's throne. He was also conflicted and sometimes disgusted by Parker's self-destructive habits and the romanticized lure of drug addiction they offered to other jazz musicians. In response to the many sax players who imitated Parker, Mingus titled a song, "If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There'd be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats" (released on Mingus Dynasty as "Gunslinging Bird").