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Sue Mingus: "First and Foremost a Composer"

By Published: July 12, 2005
AAJ: I wonder if there is more of an appreciation in the musical world in general for jazz musicians as composers—whether they're now seen as more important, and worthy of respect, than they were before.

SM: Well, I hope so. I hope so. I think a lot of jazz has been misunderstood and continues to be; a lot of people think [the musicians] are just improvising all the way through when they put a horn in their mouth. Part of it is a question of education and familiarity. But we don't miss Mozart at the piano. We have come to appreciate the great legacies of these master composers. It's interesting: in some cases Charles' music is getting a better reading than he had an opportunity when he was alive. He didn't have access, he didn't have the financial support. Look, we have a big band [Mingus Big Band] with all these players—if he could have composed every week for a band like this, with all these voicings, all these possibilities, how magnificent it would have been! Whether or not he would have had the temperament to sustain it [laughing], I don't know. You know, I don't think Charles had the temperament, like Duke, to be constricted to play 360 days a year. Who knows? But the irony is that many of his pieces are getting incredible readings that he didn't have the opportunity to have. I mean, [bassist] Boris Kozlov, for example, on this record [I Am Three, the new CD featuring the three principal Mingus repertory groups, Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big Band and Mingus Orchestra], made an arrangement of "Cell Block F, which happened to have been a piece that I myself never particularly liked. I heard it in a whole new context. And this happens over and over—with the Orchestra performing pieces that have not been played. One of them Charles wrote when he was seventeen, "The Chill of Death. It's just a wonderful palette. All these different musicians and different formats to give his music an airing that it didn't always have an opportunity to get.

AAJ: I want to ask about your new record label. Mingus was one of the first to have his own labels: he had Debut, and Charles Mingus Enterprises. Now you've got the Sue Mingus Music imprint; tell me about its origin.

SM: Well, there were increasing problems with record companies—their aims don't always jibe with your aims. I did not feel we were getting distribution that was what I thought we could have had. Then I read, oddly, about Dave Holland leaving ECM/Universal and joining Sunnyside and putting out his own label. The irony is that Dave Holland mentioned how he'd gotten the idea because Mingus had done this years ago. And I got the idea from Dave Holland! Because [Sunnyside head] François Zalacain is somebody who I have always liked and respected. He had, in the very beginning, a connection to Dreyfus, the French label that we were on for seven or eight of our CDs—and I had known him ever since. He parted ways with Dreyfus, but I have always liked and admired him. And when I saw that Dave was leaving his label to do this, I called up François right away ... and he was delighted to have Mingus on board. We're in the course of working out the foreign distribution; I think we will probably go with Universal. Domestically, Sunnyside will manage the label and get it on iTunes, which they already have, and get it distributed, I think through Ryko, and so forth. You know, I investigated a number of possibilities, and this seems like the one that fit the best. I was going to, first of all, call [the new label] Sioux City—Charles wrote a piece called "They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux ; he used to spell my name S-I-O-U-X. And so I had thought of calling my label Sioux City, with a tomahawk as a logo [laughing], as a division of [Sue Mingus' previous anti-bootleg label] Revenge Records. Then I thought of calling it—well, "sue also means going after the opposition. Sue City—like that. I think everybody felt I should just not be cute and call it Sue Mingus Music. Which is going to be putting out Mingus music, both repertory and music that Charles and I released in the 'sixties. We had a little label called Charles Mingus Enterprises, and one of those albums has never been out on CD—one of my favorites, because it's classic, vintage Mingus. I wrote about it in my book [Tonight at Noon: a Love Story] ; it's called Music Written For Monterey, Not Played, Performed at UCLA—in one of the typical unwieldy Mingus titles.

AAJ: Unwieldy but accurate.

SM: Very accurate. Maybe not quite as wonderful as "All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother —but in that line. So that would be one that we would put out. That was an event that was fraught with conflict; Charles hired and fired and hired back his musicians throughout the recording. At one point he fired them for "mental tardiness [laughing heartily]. It's just wonderful, vintage Mingus. No self-respecting record company would have ever put this out! It was ours, and Charles wanted the warts to be visible. It was a wild and woolly Mingus performance—as it was in those days. I'm very fond of it for that reason. We put out four albums, and I leased three of them to Fantasy, which I now have back, and this fourth has never been out on CD. So that might be the next CD I would put out. I also have the others, and I have unissued Mingus material that has never seen the light of day: [additional material from] the other albums that he put out, like My Favorite Quintet, that was recorded at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, and Mingus at Town Hall—not the famous Town Hall where he tried to perform "Epitaph. Same title, but a different concert. We have part two of the Tyrone Guthrie and part two of the Town Hall, which have never been out. And an extraordinary concert that was done at Cornell University before the famous 1964 tour in Europe, with the same personnel, with Eric Dolphy and Johnny Coles. Johnny Coles only lasted, I think, for one of the concerts on the tour, because he took ill and was hospitalized. So this was one of the great concerts; everyone was happy, the music was just outstanding. And that's in the can, that's something that eventually I would put out. Also, Charles Live at Ronnie Scott's. We had the Mingus Big Band at Ronnie Scott's from last year that I may put out ... but in 1972, Mingus was recorded by Columbia Records with their mobile trucks at Ronnie Scott's. It was the year—from the point of view of many of us, a scandalous year—that Columbia dropped all their jazz musicians except Miles Davis. And Charles was one that they dropped, and I think they felt so bad about it that they gave us the tapes that they had just recorded live at Ronnie Scott's. So these are some of the ideas of material that we will be issuing. In other words, both Mingus performances and repertory carrying on, like the Orchestra—Nat Hentoff said he'd like to hear a whole album of just the Orchestra.

AAJ: That makes two of us. I'm excited by all those possibilities! Some of those Mingus performances have never been available or licensed to anyone; of the stuff that has, I was just listening yesterday to "Meditations on Integration from the 1964 Monterey concert.

SM: That's one of my favorite pieces.

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