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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
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.

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