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Sue Mingus: "First and Foremost a Composer"

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You know, when interviewers would ask Charles what kind of music he played and tried to fit him into categories, he would sadly say, 'cant you just call it Mingus music?'
Charles Mingus (1922-1979), one of the indisputable giants of jazz, left behind a huge body of composition that, in its breadth and excellence, can be compared only to the work of Duke Ellington—or, perhaps to no one save Mingus himself. Mingus' widow, Sue Mingus, has worked to keep Mingus' work heard (although she disclaims any great responsibility, feeling that his work stands on its own); she has created several Mingus repertory groups, all of whom are currently performing Mingus' compositions at a superlative level. Sue Mingus' 2002 memoir of her life with Mingus, Tonight at Noon: a Love Story, was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book. This year saw Sue Mingus starting her own record label, Sue Mingus Music, in a partnership with Sunnyside Records; its first release, I Am Three, is a remarkable—and remarkably cohesive—joint CD featuring the three principal Mingus reportory groups: Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, and Mingus Orchestra. I spoke with Sue Mingus about her new label, the repertory bands, and the legacy of Charles Mingus.

All About Jazz: You met Charles Mingus in 1964. You got a pretty deep and immediate immersion into the jazz world, as well as Mingus' world, which was kind of a world unto itself. You met him before you'd heard his work; how long did it take you to begin to appreciate his music?

Sue Mingus: I met him the night that I first heard his music—at the Five Spot. I suspect that Mingus is somebody that you appreciate right away, if you're going to appreciate him. The music was immediately involving and exciting, he was a very powerful presence on stage, and there was certainly a hypnotic quality about Mingus—whatever you knew or didn't know about the music.

AAJ: Now you've sort of become his defender in the world—against, for example, bootleggers of his recordings—and also his greatest missionary in terms of keeping his music heard. All of that has got to be exhausting work at times; what keeps you at it?

SM: I wouldn't say exhausting, I would say invigorating. I like the music, it's full of vitality, I've learned a huge amount from being around musicians and around the music—and for me, it's an experience of great vitality. It's not enervating in any kind of way. And I hate to think of myself as being a defender of Mingus. I think his music is out there and stands on its own. I don't think it needed Sue Mingus or anybody else. You know, I might have speeded up the process a little, but Charles left one of the largest legacies of composition—and it's far better known now, twenty-five years after his death, than it was. And I guess the main point I'd like to make, Paul, is this: when Charles was alive, he was known primarily as a powerful bandleader, a personality on stage, a virtuoso bassist. But the reason that we're listening to him as much as we are today is increasingly less those reasons than his composition. And he always said he was first and foremost a composer. People didn't hear that then because his personality was so outsized that I think his composition was diminished beside his personality in many cases. People didn't realize that it was all part of the whole. Today, that is very different. You know, when I started the first [Mingus repertory] band—quite by accident, I did not start out with a mission, I did not discuss with Charles the carrying on of his music—it was a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, a two-night concert, and I was asked to form a band. And that was the genesis of the first Mingus Dynasty band. And we kept that going; it became apparent during those tribute concerts that nobody played Mingus... And that was one of the reasons to keep the band going. George Wein, I think, called right away and wanted to book it. So it was pretty serendipitous; it was not at all by design. And in the beginning, for the band to even be legitimate, to book it, everyone in the band had to have played with Mingus—except the bassist. Now, twenty-five years later, practically no one in the band [ever played with Mingus]; many of the musicians were in diapers when Charles died. Some of them were not even born.

We have one or two. [Trumpeter] Jack Walrath plays from time to time, he played with Mingus. Dear [saxophonist] John Stubblefield, who's gravely ill in the hospital now, played very briefly with Charles. [Stubblefield passed on on July 4, a few weeks after this interview took place.][Trumpeter] Randy Brecker recorded with him, [saxophonist] Ronnie Cuber recorded with him—but those are exceptions. I have a pool of well over a hundred and fifty musicians that have learned his music, and by and large, none of them played with Charles. So I just would like to make that point—that Charles as bandleader and virtuoso bassist is past. That is gone forever. We have records, but what is living, breathing, is the music itself. These musicians, as you say, keep it alive—you know, music dies if it's not played. But I think that Charles left such a huge body of composition that it's not going to be buried anywhere, whether I'm around or not.


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