Charlie Mingus, Cat Trainer Extraordinaire

May 4, 2022

Who of us – certainly those of us with a taste for jazz in the late ‘50s and ‘60s – have not heard of Charlie Mingus? Living from 1922 to 1979, he was an American jazz double bassist, pianist, composer, and bandleader. A major proponent of collective improvisation, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers in history.

According to his bio in Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Mingus studied music as a child in Los Angeles and at 16 began playing bass. The foundation of his technique was laid in five years of study with a symphonic musician. After stints with Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory in the early 1940s, Mingus wrote and played for the Lionel Hampton big band from 1947 to 1948 and recorded with Red Norvo. In the early 1950s he formed his own record label and the Jazz Composer’s Workshop, a musicians’ cooperative, in an attempt to circumvent the commercialism of the music industry.”

But That’s Not All He Was Known For!

This is the public story surrounding an extraordinary man. But what about the quirky private story? The fact is that Charlie Mingus was a cat lover whose insights into the psychology of these domestic animals was sufficiently compelling that he managed to train his cats to do their business in a regular toilet – including flushing!

So, for those of our followers who have cats but are sometimes aggravated by the amount of time it takes to clean up after them, read on. What follows is a blow-by-blow account, composed by a jazz maestro, of a cat toilet training program. It opens like this:

“First, you must train your cat to use a home-made cardboard litter box, if you have not already done so. (If your box does not have a one-piece bottom, add a cardboard that fits inside, so you have a false bottom that is smooth and strong. This way the box will not become soggy and fall out at the bottom. The grocery store will have extra flat cardboards which you can cut down to fit exactly inside your box.) Be sure to use torn up newspaper, not kitty litter. Stop using kitty litter. (When the time comes you cannot put sand in a toilet.)”

The magisterial tone of the Mingus cat toilet training advisory continues systematically:

Step 1: Slow Moves

Gradually move the box towards the bathroom – a few feet at a time – once your cat has been completely trained to use it. This will get the little devil thinking. For those of you who already have the box in the bathroom, move it out, Mingus advises, before slowly moving it back. Your cat “has to learn to follow it. If it is too close to the toilet to begin with, he will not follow it up onto the toilet seat when you move it there. A cat will look for his box. He smells it.” As you move the box, Mingus explains, you must begin cutting the brim of the box down, so the sides get lower. Do this gradually.

Step 2: Easy Does It

Eventually you reach the bathroom and the toilet itself. This takes time. Do not rush things. Now the time has come to place the box on top of your toilet. Suggests Mingus: “At each corner of the box, cut a little slash. You can run string around the box, through these slashes, and tie the box down to the toilet so it will not fall off. Your cat will see it there and jump up to the box, which is now sitting on top of the toilet (with the sides cut down to only an inch or so.)”

Step 3: Chill Out

Be patient. Cats have their own way to come to terms with change. Allow your cat a week or two to get used to the new set-up. Adds Mingus: “Meanwhile, put less and less newspaper inside the box.”

Step 4: Cut a Hole

Now comes the moment of truth. Says Mingus: “One day, cut a small hole in the very center of the box, less than an apple – about the size of a plum – and leave some paper in the box around the hole. Right away he will start aiming for the hole and possibly even try to make it bigger.” Leave the paper for a while to absorb the waste. When your cat jumps up he will not be afraid of the hole because he expects it.

Step 5: You’ve Won

“At this point,” writes the exultant Mingus, “you will realize that you have won. The most difficult part is over. From now on, it is just a matter of time.” Mingus continues anecdotally, leaving us with the following observation:

“Once when I was cleaning the box and had removed it from the toilet, my cat jumped up anyway and almost fell in. To avoid this, have a temporary flat cardboard ready with a little hole, and slide it under the toilet lid so he can use it while you are cleaning, in case he wants to come and go, and so he will not fall in and be scared off completely.”

Step 6: A Few Final Steps

  • Now cut the box down completely until there’s no brim left.
  • Place the flat cardboard, which is left, under the lid of the toilet seat, and pray.
  • Leave a little newspaper, still.
  • The cat will rake it into the hole anyway, after he goes to the bathroom.
  • Eventually, you can simply get rid of the cardboard altogether.

The Grand Finale

According to Mingus, cats get the hang of things quickly. They often learn to flush by accident. Once they see how clean flushing leaves the bowl, their instinct to cover up is reinforced. They start flushing intentionally.

Protect your toilet paper. Cats like to paw at it. Get it out of the way or you’ll discover that your cat will instinctively roll it into the toilet – with the intention of covering up the way he would if there were still kitty litter or newspaper.

Lessons from Nightlife

Mingus’ cat, named Nightlife, took 3-4 weeks to become toilet trained. He’s quoted as saying: “Most of the time is spent moving the box very gradually to the bathroom. Do it very slowly and don’t confuse him. And remember, once the box is on the toilet, leave it a week or even two. The main thing to remember is not to rush or confuse him.”

Considering the Mingus reputation for wild musical improvisations, it’s reassuring to discover how disciplined and systematic he was while toilet training Nightlife. There’s a lesson here for all of us.



Researched, resourced and written by experts, Everything Retirement is designed to get you where you want to go and enable you to become who you want to be. With clarity, insight and – above all – honesty, realism and actionable answers.