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

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.


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