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Sue Graham Mingus: All the Things You Could Be By Now If Charles' Wife Was Your Flamekeeper

By Published: November 5, 2007

My focus has been on Charles the composer, which is what he always underlined as his main contribution in his lifetime. He was considered a virtuoso bass player and a bandleader and a colorful character on stage, all of which he was. But he was first and foremost a composer. —Sue Graham Mingus

Sue MingusCharles Mingus was a larger than life figure on the music scene. Crashing. Volatile. Complex. Swinging. Intense. Delicate. Raucous and joyous. Depending on who you talk to, and maybe even what day, different images might be conjured up. Different words used to describe him by those who knew and performed with him.

But inside Mingus, always, was the music. He played the bass as a virtuoso, and so, composed on the spot like all the great ones—Prez [Lester Young], Bird [Charlie Parker], Newk [Sonny Rollins] and Trane [John Coltrane]. But more than that, Mingus composed works on a grand scale, some of which have only come to light in recent years. Gunther Schuller says in the pantheon of jazz composition, Mingus rates only behind Duke Ellington as America's finest composer. His body of ornate, complex, moving and memorable pieces are part of the soil of jazz; fertile and important to its life.

In addition to all the albums made when he was alive, recordings have been cropping up and repertory bands are taking the music all over the world. That part of it is still growing, all under the watchful eye of Sue Graham Mingus, who has overseen all things musical and business for her late husband since his death in 1979.

The latest to jump up this summer is Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy, Cornell 1964 (Blue Mote, 2007), a superb example of a small ensemble going through Mingus pieces and arrangements in a way that's loose and free-wheeling, per the design of Mingus—compelling and energy-packed.

Pianist Jaki Byard and drummer Danny Richmond round out the rhythm section and joining Dolphy are Clifford Jordan on tenor sax and Johnny Coles on trumpet. It's a great aggregation, and the double-disk recording has already garnered high praise from critics.

"It's immediately apparent that everybody was happy and having a good time, and the chemistry was in place and Charles is shouting with pleasure, says Mingus from New York City in August, a few days before she went with the Mingus Orchestra to the JVC Jazz Festival in Newport, RI. "You can tell immediately what the mood is. It's a very special version of the music, for me. And I think other people have felt that also.

Indeed, "Fables of Faubus, which runs nearly a half-hour, is a high-energy exploration with many textures. It is fun. Mingus' solo itself delightfully wanders off into brief takes including "It Ain't Necessarily So, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again and others, while still retaining the rich pulse and a sense of the blues. And the élan of the band can be felt through "Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk, Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train, "Meditations and "So Long Eric, written for Mingus' longtime friend, who was soon to leave the band.

There's more to come from the Mingus library. So stay tuned.

Charles "I have a number of tapes in boxes and they are stored over at Sony Studios over here on the west side [New York City], says Mingus. "These were old—however many inches they are—tapes from the '60s and '70s. Out of fear for their disintegrating I had them transferred to DAT to CD, whatever. In the course of that we found a number of things. I used some of it on our [Mingus Big Band] Blues and Politics CD (Dreyfus Records, 1989). I used some of it to open one of our CDs where Charles is speaking about Selma [Alabama]. The Cornell tapes surfaced in the course of transferring the tapes to digital.

"So gradually, we've been dipping in to these tapes and incorporating them into what we're already releasing, she says. Music Written for Monterey, Not Heard... Played in Its Entirety at UCLA, Sept. 25, 1965 (Mingus Music-Sunnyside) was released on Sue Mingus' own label in 2006, "which was probably the last release that I will do. Also released around that time was The Mingus Big Band Live in Tokyo at the Blue Note, by a current Mingus band.

"We recorded live when we were there on New Year's Eve last year [2006], and then this legendary album of Charles' from UCLA, which had never been out on CD. It had been released on a record album. Charles and I put out maybe seven or eight hundred copies before we ran out of money. Then Fred Cohen and I released a special edition in the early '80s. But that was it. So it was brand new for a lot of people, she says.

"These other tapes have never seen the light of day, so there's an excitement about that because it's new material. It's not that I couldn't have done it earlier; it's just that there are only so many hours in a day and we have a lot of projects. I have been focusing more on the live bands that are carrying on the legacy. With time, we will go back and release some of these great legendary recordings by the master himself.

The recordings she refers to are all live sets. "There's a marvelous recording at Ronnie Scott's in London that was recorded with mobile trucks by Sony, actually by Columbia Records, in the early '70s before they dumped most of their jazz artists, including Mingus. As a kind of booby prize, I guess, they gave us back these very professional tapes. So they're in the can. And there's a concert from somewhere in Germany. There are a number of things. Charles and I had a record company called Charles Mingus Enterprises and we put out Part 2 of a number of concerts, one at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the other at Town Hall. That may be the next, a combination of the Town Hall concert and then these others tapes, the Part 2s that have not been released, she says, adding, "I don't know. There's a treasure trove of material and we will eventually get it out.

She says the Cornell concert will stand strong in her husband's recorded legacy. Not all of the unpredictable Mingus' concerts carried a joyous mood, Sue readily admits. But that is all part of the artist and the artistic process. "The moods changed and sometimes the music soared as a result of the tension. It can also inspire the musicians to great heights when there's a lot of outside tension. Sometimes it feeds the music equation. But certainly many times the fire and wrath and storm and drama nourished the artistic, nourished the music, nourished the passion that went into it.

Mingus Aware of her Charles' stature as a bassist, the recordings are the only places that the displays now exist. As brilliant as they are in spots, there is much more to this particular artist. Sue Mingus feels it's the compositions—they are continually alive, continually show promise when performed, and will live on. It's the reason behind the Mingus repertory bands, which have now expanded to four groups: the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band, the Mingus Orchestra and the large group that occasionally gets together for "Epitaph.

"My focus has been on Charles the composer, which is what he always underlined as his main contribution in his lifetime. He was considered a virtuoso bassist and a bandleader and a colorful character on stage, all of which he was. But he was first and foremost a composer. That's what we have today. That's the reason we're listening. He left the largest legacy, after Duke Ellington, in American music in the 20th century. I don't think he would be surprised that there are bands carrying on all this composition. I think he knew who he was as a composer. But that's what we're trying to do, with a lot of help from all these marvelous musicians.

The bands not only keep the music alive, but have opened doors for other bands to play these treasures. But the germination of the idea wasn't done with any kind of grand scheme. Quite the contrary. Sue wasn't familiar with what it took to run a band, but was undaunted when it first happened many years ago. And she has learned valuable lessons, sometimes the hard way, along the way. She also doesn't regret anything or back down from the challenges.

"It's all serendipitous, she said of the idea's origins. "It was not by design at all. We started with the seven-piece band only because I was asked to start a band for a tribute. I took names off of one of the Columbia records, four horns and a rhythm section. I put together that band and it sounded so authentic. Plus at the two-day Mingus festival nobody else played Mingus. That was an eye-opener also, that people had stayed away from this music because it was so connected to the powerful personality of the man himself. People weren't playing this music like they play Duke and Monk. So that was another reason for getting this band out there. It was really putting one foot in front of the other.

She encountered problems and detours along the way, especially in the early years. She has described, in her book Tonight at Noon: A Love Story (De Capo, 2003), aspects of her life with Mingus after the couple met in 1964, in particular the years Charles Mingus spent dealing with Multiple Sclerosis, which finally claimed his life. There were many people in the music industry, including musicians, who didn't believe in Sue Mingus and didn't accord her much, if any, respect. She fought through it.

Mingus "The vulnerable are always under attack in the musical world, in the real world. You learn under attack. You learn and grow and find out what you're doing wrong. It's a learning experience with its own stimulation and motivation, she says. "There are also advantages, sometimes, to not knowing everything. Because you do things you wouldn't do if you knew better. Everybody said it wouldn't work, having a band with seven musicians, all of whom were potential leaders themselves, or had their own bands. They said the chemistry would never work; there would be in-fighting and so on and so forth. In fact it did work. The first version of the Dynasty lasted about ten years. Then we doubled it and started the Mingus Big Band. Now we're going back again. We've resuscitated the Dynasty and added other bands.

"You can't listen to what people tell you is going to work or not work, she adds with a laugh. "That's a number-one rule.

At Newport, Sue Mingus and Schuller spoke to the audience about the nature of Mingus as a composer with an ear for so many sounds, timbres, dynamics and colors. The band of that day, the Orchestra, had bassoon and French horn, things not found in some of the other Mingus groups, and took on music that had great subtlety at times; reflection and introspection. She explained to the audience the meaning behind some of the titles, at ease and eloquent in unfolding the stories. She hasn't looked back to question why she, a longtime journalist, decided to jump into the sometimes callous music world.

"It doesn't do any good to look back and wonder if you'd gone another route, Sue says. "This was an aberration in the beginning, becoming part of the music world, when I'm not a professional musician. I played piano from age six in recitals and so forth, but I came out of a classical world. My mother played the harp and the piano. My father was an opera lover. I knew nothing about jazz when I met Mingus, but it's been a great learning experience and very enriching, certainly, to learn about the music and the musicians and the whole music life. It's been an unexpected gift. It's a many splendored thing.

For Sue Mingus, the music of Charles and Charles the man are inseparable.

"It's one and the same, she says. "I was never more aware of this than when we first performed 'Epitaph' and were rehearsing at CAMI studios (Columbia Artists Management Inc.) on 57th Street, opposite Carnegie Hall. There was music that none of us had ever heard, 'Children's Hour of Dream,' and it was like a bolt of lightning in the middle of the room because the music was so powerfully Mingus. It was as if he had stepped inside himself. Absolutely, the man is his music.

Mingus Known to fire musicians on stage, Mingus had a tumultuous relationship with many of them because his personality could run to extremes. Would he be pleased with today's bands?

"I always tell them he'd fire all of them, she says with a laugh. But pushing humor aside, adds, "I think he would be pleased to see his music carried on. These are marvelous musicians. The irony is that we have bands that play every single week. Charles never had that opportunity to have a big band. One can imagine what he might have done with the palette, fourteen musicians he could have composed for week after week after week. It's too bad he didn't have that choice. He had a quintet because economically that was the most feasible arrangement.

"Whenever he had the chance, he would bring together hordes of musicians. I think there were thirty-one or thirty-five for 'Let My Children Hear Music,' and the attempt by United Artists to record 'Epitaph' that went awry. He never had the economic possibility. Or probably the temperament. Who knows if he would have had the temperament to sustain a band week after week after week? That's another unknown.

She says Mingus would not be surprised that his music remains popular. "He knew that he left a very large legacy that was here to stay. I don't think he had doubts like that ... Last night, for example, we had the Mingus Orchestra playing at an outdoor festival in Washington Square Park [lower Manhattan] and the Mingus Big Band uptown at Iridium. And it was packed. The most rewarding thing is how much musicians want to play in these bands. Mingus music is stimulating and challenging. It really brings the individual musician's identity to the front and that's very rewarding for musicians and why they are eager to play in these bands. That's a tribute to the music.

Sue The Dynasty band started playing at Birdland and moved around New York City. "Now we alternate all three bands up at Iridium, depending on the spur of the moment, she said. After booking the band for years, she also notes that the Ted Kurland Agency in Boston has now taken over that task, "which is wonderful for us—all four groups, including Epitaph.

She has also changed her opinion on the bootlegging of music. For years, Sue Mingus was known for her stance against pirating music, adamant that musicians need to get their royalties. She was known to go into record stores in the city and grab Mingus albums she knew were unauthorized and walk out. But she's done a 180-degree turn. The reason: technological advances that make it impossible to monitor.

"You can't fight Sidney Hall, as Charles used to say, says Mingus. "You can't fight something that's a fact of life. Everybody can copy. There are musicians who've told me they haven't bought a CD in eight years. Everybody burns copies for one another. If that possibility is there, you have to embrace it. The government is going to have to find a way to subsidize artists. Artists have to have some way of making money. If they're not going to be able to make money selling their music when everybody can copy it, I don't know. You have to have rewards for creativity. If the minute you create something it's absorbed by everyone else and it no longer is yours and you can't make money off it and pay the rent, then what's going to happen to out creative imaginations? Who knows? I'm sure we'll work our way through, but I have no idea how we're going to do that.

"If you're able to copy everything, you won't go back. So the first question is: What kind of copyright protection can anybody have when everything belongs to everybody? There's another wonderful (DVD) compilation that Jazz Icons is releasing which includes some Mingus concerts—one in a television studio in Belgium and two live concerts, one in Sweden and one in Oslo. A lot of this material has already appeared on YouTube. My attorney called me up and said—as did Jazz Icons—did they want me to force them to take it off. I said absolutely not. It's wonderful publicity. It's reaching people who otherwise wouldn't hear Mingus music, probably. I don't see it at all as competitive to their release. Their release is not muddy and unclear. These [on YouTube] aren't great renditions of the music, nor are they visual masterpieces. But it's information. I think it's wonderful.

"I've come full circle. I had a record company called Revenge Records and I went after pirates. I used to walk into music stores and just take all the pirated material that I saw of Mingus. People come to the club. We used to ask them not to film, not to take photographs. But now I say: be my guest. Everybody on the face of the earth can take pictures or record.

So Sue Mingus continues on, working to keep the brilliant music of her husband circulating the globe. In the meantime, she has never taken her hands away from writing, and says another book on Charles Mingus is in the works and could find its way to shelves in a couple of years.

Charles Mingus "Actually, the original reason I wanted to write the book was simply to write about the astonishing period in Mexico when Mingus was dying and lived up to everything that he ever shouted on stage, with such grace and heroism. It was an amazing experience for me to see this struggle and the bravery. I really just wanted to write about that one time. Then I was asked who I was, who was the voice, what was my background and how did I meet Charles and all that. I really had not intended to get into that at all. That was the hard part, revealing all the personal things, which were not really what I was interested in writing about. I had to dredge up all sorts of things in order to balance the book for the editors, who did not want just one aspect of this time.

Writing, she says, "is a way of living something again and examining it again, enriching it, deepening it. Circling the wagons, so to speak. You can take events and see them from many different perspectives that you didn't at the time. It's a fascinating procedure. It's something worthy in itself. It isn't for any ends. It more for clarification and, I would say, pleasure. Reliving something.

For jazz aficionados, more releases spearheaded by Sue Mingus will allow them to relive as well.

Selected Discography

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy, Cornell 1964 (Blue Note, 2007)
Mingus Big Band, Live in Tokyo at the Blue Note (Sue Mingus Music/Sunnyside, 2006)
Mingus Big Band, Tonight at Noon: Three of Four Shades of Love (Dreyfus, 2002)
Mingus Big Band, Que Viva Mingus! (Dreyfus, 1997)
Mingus Dynasty, Reincarnation (Soul Note, 1997)
Mingus Big Band, Nostalgia in Times Square (Dreyfus, 1993)
Charles Mingus, Epitaph (Columbia, 1990)
Mingus Dynasty, Mingus' Sounds of Love (Soul Note, 1988)
Mingus Dynasty, Live at the Village Vanguard (Storyville, 1984)
Charles Mingus, Three or Four Shades of Blue (Atlantic, 1977)
Charles Mingus, Changes Two (Atlantic, 1974)
Charles Mingus, Changes One (Atlantic, 1974)
Charles Mingus, Let My Children Hear Music (Columbia, 1971)
Charles Mingus, The Great Concert (Prestige, 1964)
Charles Mingus, Mingus Dynasty (Columbia, 1959)
Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um (Columbia, 1959)
Charles Mingus, The Clown (Atlantic, 1957)
Charles Mingus, Pithecanthropus Erectus (Atlantic, 1956)
Charles Mingus, Mingus at the Bohemia (Debut/OJC, 1955)
Charles Mingus, Moods of Mingus (Savoy, 1954)

Photo Credits

Charles Mingus: Tom Copps/Jazz Workshop Inc., courtesy of Sue Mingus
Sue Mingus: Courtesy of Sue Mingus

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