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Sue Mingus: "First and Foremost a Composer"

By Published: July 12, 2005
AAJ: Yeah, it knocked me out and it made me start to wonder what kind of music you were going to put on on your label, so you answered my question. Let's talk about the CD that's out now on Sue Mingus Music, I Am Three. It's three bands—Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Orchestra and Mingus Big Band. But there are a lot of musicians in common between the groups and the album sounds very cohesive. I'm particularly crazy about John Stubblefield's arrangements for the Big Band.

SM: Aren't they wonderful?

AAJ: Yeah. I've been listening to "Song With Orange a lot. It's a fantastic opener for the CD.

SM: It's so catchy; none of us can get it out of our heads.

AAJ: It is catchy. Just solid swing. I think in my review of the album I wrote something about how the musicians stay focused on the composition. You can feel them starting to—

SM: I liked that! You said you felt them wanting to just blow [laughing]—but that John [Stubblefield] kept them honest. I read that to him in his [hospital] bed; he was delighted. I don't think he has many days left. He's in a hospice in the Bronx. He listens to this CD all day long, especially "Song With Orange.

AAJ: That must have been a special day in the studio when he came in with those arrangements.

SM: It was remarkable. [Saxophonist] Alex Foster pointed that out, that it was a really unique experience for him—and he's done a lot of recording. John just whipped everyone into shape. And it was very moving. You know, he was there in his wheelchair, standing up and screaming at us [laughing].

AAJ: Towards the end of the song, someone is doing sort of a singing rhythmic bellow, like Mingus used to: "whaa-whaa-WOW! Who was that?

SM: It could be John. Probably either John, or Ku-Umba Frank Lacy, or at this point, almost anybody. I think everyone got into the fray. But I would suspect it was John.

AAJ: I'm very impressed with bassist Boris Kozlov throughout the CD. I especially like his playing on "Song With Orange; his bass playing under George Colligan's piano solo on that tune is great. I think it would be hard to, so to speak, play the Mingus role in these groups. I think he did a terrific job, in his playing and his arrangements.

SM: He's pretty extraordinary. He's one of the most conscientious musicians I've ever met in my life. I think he's going to have trouble, because whenever he fills in for someone, subs for them, he knows the music better than the person he's subbing for! Or so I've heard. He came over, he watched videos, he uncovered secrets of Charles', how Charles would bow behind the bridge sometimes—because you can play faster, there's less of an area to cover with the bow. He uncovered tricks, devices. In fact, Boris took Charles' opening bass solo in "Meditations, which you just referred to, and transcribed it, and incorporated it into our arrangement. That's how thorough and respectful he is, and at the same time, he's a very creative artist in his own right. But dealing with Mingus' music, he's given it as thorough a coverage as anybody could possibly give. He's just a grand bassist.

AAJ: I love his arrangement of "Tensions for the Big Band.

SM: Wasn't that wonderful? And, as I mentioned in the liner notes, it's amazing how these musicians really get involved. Boris was saying he couldn't sleep at night because he was so tense, and then he had that vision. He kept trying to figure out what the horns should do, and he had a vision where somebody was saying, "Spit it! Spit it! He said that was it, that was what the horns were supposed to sound like: they're spitting out the sounds. This was in a dream; he was so involved that his dreams were speaking to him and giving him answers.

AAJ: That tune "Tensions seems so topically apt. Maybe, sadly, it will always seem appropriate to the times.

SM: But whenever we play, "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me or "Don't Let It Happen Here —these pieces that were written forty or fifty years ago, we always preface it with "sadly, they're still topical.

AAJ: Or "Cell Block F 'Tis Nazi USA —I know he added that title after the fact of composition, but—

SM: But he wanted to call attention to it, and as I said, it could just as well be Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib.

AAJ: Or our contemporary American prison system. It's notable how consistently timely Mingus' concerns about race, America, and a variety of other topics remain.

SM: Alas.

AAJ: Yes, alas. In a less somber vein—who chose the tunes for this CD? And similarly, was it your idea to combine all three Mingus bands on one album?

SM: I look around when it comes time to put out a CD to see what we've got that's new and how it might all work together. And I have been wanting for some time to bring these different groups together to make a statement about the breadth and range of Charles' music. One of the original engineers at a former record company saw Charles as a bebopper! It's amazing, people have such different takes on Mingus—and members of the band too, until they actually play in the band, can have very unique and individual ideas about Charles. I remember one time, years ago, one of the jazz magazines had four or six pages in the center of the magazine devoted to [jazz] categories. And they put everybody known to man or beast who played jazz in these categories: bebop, West Coast jazz, Dixieland—whatever. Charles was not in one of them! And I thought about that: how ironic and how true!

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