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Sue Mingus: "First and Foremost a Composer"

By Published: July 12, 2005
AAJ: Yes, for once they got it right.

SM: For once they got it right. You know, when interviewers would ask Charles what kind of music he played and tried to fit him into categories, he would sadly say, "can't you just call it Mingus music? And I think today we can. Charles used so many different kinds of musical genres. Classical music and Latin music—anything that had notes in it, that had sounds. It's very hard to categorize a truly original sound. So that was part of the idea of [having all three groups on one CD]; to have the Orchestra, where we focus more on the classical side of Charles, some of the through-composed pieces. Not that we don't play some of those also in the Big Band, but here we also have some of these more exotic instruments that you don't normally find in jazz, like bassoon and French horn, that Charles loved and normally didn't have an opportunity to use in his groups. ... The interesting thing is that we started with the Dynasty, which is the seven-piece band, and we've kept a lot of the same musicans in the group. The musicians now that played in the Dynasty don't even need to read the music; it's in their pores, it's in their bone marrow. So there's a freedom and a different kind of an excitement with the Dynasty. I think each band brings a different part of Mingus to the fore.

AAJ: Yes, that's true. Certainly the Dynasty brings that veteran familiarity—which they certainly show off on "Cell Block F. As for the Mingus Orchestra, I am very eager to see this group. And I definitely crave a full CD of them, because their pieces on this album are particularly good. They make "Todo Modo —which is a really complicated song, with alternating jazz swing and classical sections—sound easy.

SM: It's interesting, because—well, Andrew Homzy, who is a musicologist and a professor at Concordia University in Montréal and who cataloged all of Charles' works originally, and in fact discovered "Epitaph while he was cataloging them—as I say, all of the good ideas I've had in my life I've stolen from Andrew Homzy. It was his idea to do the fakebook [More than a Fakebook: the Music of Charles Mingus, Jazz Workshop, 1991]. Most of the things we've done, a large percentage of them, have come from Andrew. I sent him the CD, and he was saying how grand it was to perform "Todo Modo again, because that's such an important piece, and he felt it was the centerpiece of the album. You know, it's not one of the most accessible to the person who has whatever prior [preconceptions] of Mingus' music. But it was the one piece that Charles listened to every day when he was dying, the last six months we were in Mexico. And I think that's the path—at least temporarily, he would have taken that path of written music—classical music—and jazz had he lived, for a while. Then I'm sure he would have gone on to something else, too. You know, Charles always said that people should improvise in classical music; improvisation would keep it living. That was his feeling. In the old days, certainly in the concertos, composers were improvising. There weren't written notes. Charles hastened to say that if you were improvising to Beethoven, you'd better be as good as Beethoven! But nonetheless, we now feel that classical music has to be written in stone and shouldn't be tampered with—but that wasn't the idea originally. And certainly, Charles liked the combination of serious written composition which is then given breath by the musicians who play it and who bring their own perspective and their own identity into that written music. That would be the ideal from his point of view.

AAJ: Well, I couldn't agree more with your late husband. And when you say it, it sounds unassailably logically true.

SM: Doesn't it? There was a piece I read in the Times that I loved a couple of years ago saying if Mozart and Bach came back and were in New York—where would they go to find musicians of the type that they needed to play their pieces? It said they'd go [laughing] to the Village Vanguard—to find musicians that didn't just read notes, that could create interesting backgrounds to melody lines, and transpose. You know, music students tend to read notes now; they don't really learn music inside out.

AAJ: Yes, I've found myself sort of casually quizzing classical players at parties—and some have told me they've never improvised in their lives. I'm always shocked and somewhat appalled to hear it.

SM: Well, I have to say, one afternoon Bobby McFerrin was conducting, I think it was the New York Philharmonic outdoors. I went out with some friends of his, sitting under a big umbrella. It started to rain and almost all the musicians disappeared—except Bobby stayed, there was a canopy over the band, and there were a couple horn players, a flautist. Bobby started vocalizing and then he would pass the mike to this poor instrumentalist [laughing] and he was keeping up with Bobby! He was obviously not comfortable, but Bobby was forcing a certain amount of improvisation in this moment out of time because of the rain, and it was just wonderful to see the two worlds trying to cross over a little bit.

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