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Interviews

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

By Published: November 5, 2007

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.



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