Charles 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 onesPrez [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 Minguscompelling 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.
"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 oldhowever many inches they aretapes 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 , 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.
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 compositionsthey 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.