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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, 'can
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.

AAJ: I wonder if there is more of an appreciation in the musical world in general for jazz musicians as composers—whether they're now seen as more important, and worthy of respect, than they were before.

SM: Well, I hope so. I hope so. I think a lot of jazz has been misunderstood and continues to be; a lot of people think [the musicians] are just improvising all the way through when they put a horn in their mouth. Part of it is a question of education and familiarity. But we don't miss Mozart at the piano. We have come to appreciate the great legacies of these master composers. It's interesting: in some cases Charles' music is getting a better reading than he had an opportunity when he was alive. He didn't have access, he didn't have the financial support. Look, we have a big band [Mingus Big Band] with all these players—if he could have composed every week for a band like this, with all these voicings, all these possibilities, how magnificent it would have been! Whether or not he would have had the temperament to sustain it [laughing], I don't know. You know, I don't think Charles had the temperament, like Duke, to be constricted to play 360 days a year. Who knows? But the irony is that many of his pieces are getting incredible readings that he didn't have the opportunity to have. I mean, [bassist] Boris Kozlov, for example, on this record [I Am Three, the new CD featuring the three principal Mingus repertory groups, Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big Band and Mingus Orchestra], made an arrangement of "Cell Block F, which happened to have been a piece that I myself never particularly liked. I heard it in a whole new context. And this happens over and over—with the Orchestra performing pieces that have not been played. One of them Charles wrote when he was seventeen, "The Chill of Death. It's just a wonderful palette. All these different musicians and different formats to give his music an airing that it didn't always have an opportunity to get.

AAJ: I want to ask about your new record label. Mingus was one of the first to have his own labels: he had Debut, and Charles Mingus Enterprises. Now you've got the Sue Mingus Music imprint; tell me about its origin.

SM: Well, there were increasing problems with record companies—their aims don't always jibe with your aims. I did not feel we were getting distribution that was what I thought we could have had. Then I read, oddly, about Dave Holland leaving ECM/Universal and joining Sunnyside and putting out his own label. The irony is that Dave Holland mentioned how he'd gotten the idea because Mingus had done this years ago. And I got the idea from Dave Holland! Because [Sunnyside head] François Zalacain is somebody who I have always liked and respected. He had, in the very beginning, a connection to Dreyfus, the French label that we were on for seven or eight of our CDs—and I had known him ever since. He parted ways with Dreyfus, but I have always liked and admired him. And when I saw that Dave was leaving his label to do this, I called up François right away ... and he was delighted to have Mingus on board. We're in the course of working out the foreign distribution; I think we will probably go with Universal. Domestically, Sunnyside will manage the label and get it on iTunes, which they already have, and get it distributed, I think through Ryko, and so forth. You know, I investigated a number of possibilities, and this seems like the one that fit the best. I was going to, first of all, call [the new label] Sioux City—Charles wrote a piece called "They Trespass the Land of the Sacred Sioux ; he used to spell my name S-I-O-U-X. And so I had thought of calling my label Sioux City, with a tomahawk as a logo [laughing], as a division of [Sue Mingus' previous anti-bootleg label] Revenge Records. Then I thought of calling it—well, "sue also means going after the opposition. Sue City—like that. I think everybody felt I should just not be cute and call it Sue Mingus Music. Which is going to be putting out Mingus music, both repertory and music that Charles and I released in the 'sixties. We had a little label called Charles Mingus Enterprises, and one of those albums has never been out on CD—one of my favorites, because it's classic, vintage Mingus. I wrote about it in my book [Tonight at Noon: a Love Story] ; it's called Music Written For Monterey, Not Played, Performed at UCLA—in one of the typical unwieldy Mingus titles.

AAJ: Unwieldy but accurate.

SM: Very accurate. Maybe not quite as wonderful as "All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother —but in that line. So that would be one that we would put out. That was an event that was fraught with conflict; Charles hired and fired and hired back his musicians throughout the recording. At one point he fired them for "mental tardiness [laughing heartily]. It's just wonderful, vintage Mingus. No self-respecting record company would have ever put this out! It was ours, and Charles wanted the warts to be visible. It was a wild and woolly Mingus performance—as it was in those days. I'm very fond of it for that reason. We put out four albums, and I leased three of them to Fantasy, which I now have back, and this fourth has never been out on CD. So that might be the next CD I would put out. I also have the others, and I have unissued Mingus material that has never seen the light of day: [additional material from] the other albums that he put out, like My Favorite Quintet, that was recorded at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, and Mingus at Town Hall—not the famous Town Hall where he tried to perform "Epitaph. Same title, but a different concert. We have part two of the Tyrone Guthrie and part two of the Town Hall, which have never been out. And an extraordinary concert that was done at Cornell University before the famous 1964 tour in Europe, with the same personnel, with Eric Dolphy and Johnny Coles. Johnny Coles only lasted, I think, for one of the concerts on the tour, because he took ill and was hospitalized. So this was one of the great concerts; everyone was happy, the music was just outstanding. And that's in the can, that's something that eventually I would put out. Also, Charles Live at Ronnie Scott's. We had the Mingus Big Band at Ronnie Scott's from last year that I may put out ... but in 1972, Mingus was recorded by Columbia Records with their mobile trucks at Ronnie Scott's. It was the year—from the point of view of many of us, a scandalous year—that Columbia dropped all their jazz musicians except Miles Davis. And Charles was one that they dropped, and I think they felt so bad about it that they gave us the tapes that they had just recorded live at Ronnie Scott's. So these are some of the ideas of material that we will be issuing. In other words, both Mingus performances and repertory carrying on, like the Orchestra—Nat Hentoff said he'd like to hear a whole album of just the Orchestra.

AAJ: That makes two of us. I'm excited by all those possibilities! Some of those Mingus performances have never been available or licensed to anyone; of the stuff that has, I was just listening yesterday to "Meditations on Integration from the 1964 Monterey concert.

SM: That's one of my favorite pieces.

AAJ: Yeah, it knocked me out and it made me start to wonder what kind of music you were going to put on on your label, so you answered my question. Let's talk about the CD that's out now on Sue Mingus Music, I Am Three. It's three bands—Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Orchestra and Mingus Big Band. But there are a lot of musicians in common between the groups and the album sounds very cohesive. I'm particularly crazy about John Stubblefield's arrangements for the Big Band.

SM: Aren't they wonderful?

AAJ: Yeah. I've been listening to "Song With Orange a lot. It's a fantastic opener for the CD.

SM: It's so catchy; none of us can get it out of our heads.

AAJ: It is catchy. Just solid swing. I think in my review of the album I wrote something about how the musicians stay focused on the composition. You can feel them starting to—

SM: I liked that! You said you felt them wanting to just blow [laughing]—but that John [Stubblefield] kept them honest. I read that to him in his [hospital] bed; he was delighted. I don't think he has many days left. He's in a hospice in the Bronx. He listens to this CD all day long, especially "Song With Orange.

AAJ: That must have been a special day in the studio when he came in with those arrangements.

SM: It was remarkable. [Saxophonist] Alex Foster pointed that out, that it was a really unique experience for him—and he's done a lot of recording. John just whipped everyone into shape. And it was very moving. You know, he was there in his wheelchair, standing up and screaming at us [laughing].

AAJ: Towards the end of the song, someone is doing sort of a singing rhythmic bellow, like Mingus used to: "whaa-whaa-WOW! Who was that?

SM: It could be John. Probably either John, or Ku-Umba Frank Lacy, or at this point, almost anybody. I think everyone got into the fray. But I would suspect it was John.

AAJ: I'm very impressed with bassist Boris Kozlov throughout the CD. I especially like his playing on "Song With Orange; his bass playing under George Colligan's piano solo on that tune is great. I think it would be hard to, so to speak, play the Mingus role in these groups. I think he did a terrific job, in his playing and his arrangements.

SM: He's pretty extraordinary. He's one of the most conscientious musicians I've ever met in my life. I think he's going to have trouble, because whenever he fills in for someone, subs for them, he knows the music better than the person he's subbing for! Or so I've heard. He came over, he watched videos, he uncovered secrets of Charles', how Charles would bow behind the bridge sometimes—because you can play faster, there's less of an area to cover with the bow. He uncovered tricks, devices. In fact, Boris took Charles' opening bass solo in "Meditations, which you just referred to, and transcribed it, and incorporated it into our arrangement. That's how thorough and respectful he is, and at the same time, he's a very creative artist in his own right. But dealing with Mingus' music, he's given it as thorough a coverage as anybody could possibly give. He's just a grand bassist.

AAJ: I love his arrangement of "Tensions for the Big Band.

SM: Wasn't that wonderful? And, as I mentioned in the liner notes, it's amazing how these musicians really get involved. Boris was saying he couldn't sleep at night because he was so tense, and then he had that vision. He kept trying to figure out what the horns should do, and he had a vision where somebody was saying, "Spit it! Spit it! He said that was it, that was what the horns were supposed to sound like: they're spitting out the sounds. This was in a dream; he was so involved that his dreams were speaking to him and giving him answers.

AAJ: That tune "Tensions seems so topically apt. Maybe, sadly, it will always seem appropriate to the times.

SM: But whenever we play, "Oh Lord Don't Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me or "Don't Let It Happen Here —these pieces that were written forty or fifty years ago, we always preface it with "sadly, they're still topical.

AAJ: Or "Cell Block F 'Tis Nazi USA —I know he added that title after the fact of composition, but—

SM: But he wanted to call attention to it, and as I said, it could just as well be Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib.

AAJ: Or our contemporary American prison system. It's notable how consistently timely Mingus' concerns about race, America, and a variety of other topics remain.

SM: Alas.

AAJ: Yes, alas. In a less somber vein—who chose the tunes for this CD? And similarly, was it your idea to combine all three Mingus bands on one album?

SM: I look around when it comes time to put out a CD to see what we've got that's new and how it might all work together. And I have been wanting for some time to bring these different groups together to make a statement about the breadth and range of Charles' music. One of the original engineers at a former record company saw Charles as a bebopper! It's amazing, people have such different takes on Mingus—and members of the band too, until they actually play in the band, can have very unique and individual ideas about Charles. I remember one time, years ago, one of the jazz magazines had four or six pages in the center of the magazine devoted to [jazz] categories. And they put everybody known to man or beast who played jazz in these categories: bebop, West Coast jazz, Dixieland—whatever. Charles was not in one of them! And I thought about that: how ironic and how true!

AAJ: Yes, for once they got it right.

SM: For once they got it right. You know, when interviewers would ask Charles what kind of music he played and tried to fit him into categories, he would sadly say, "can't you just call it Mingus music? And I think today we can. Charles used so many different kinds of musical genres. Classical music and Latin music—anything that had notes in it, that had sounds. It's very hard to categorize a truly original sound. So that was part of the idea of [having all three groups on one CD]; to have the Orchestra, where we focus more on the classical side of Charles, some of the through-composed pieces. Not that we don't play some of those also in the Big Band, but here we also have some of these more exotic instruments that you don't normally find in jazz, like bassoon and French horn, that Charles loved and normally didn't have an opportunity to use in his groups. ... The interesting thing is that we started with the Dynasty, which is the seven-piece band, and we've kept a lot of the same musicans in the group. The musicians now that played in the Dynasty don't even need to read the music; it's in their pores, it's in their bone marrow. So there's a freedom and a different kind of an excitement with the Dynasty. I think each band brings a different part of Mingus to the fore.

AAJ: Yes, that's true. Certainly the Dynasty brings that veteran familiarity—which they certainly show off on "Cell Block F. As for the Mingus Orchestra, I am very eager to see this group. And I definitely crave a full CD of them, because their pieces on this album are particularly good. They make "Todo Modo —which is a really complicated song, with alternating jazz swing and classical sections—sound easy.

SM: It's interesting, because—well, Andrew Homzy, who is a musicologist and a professor at Concordia University in Montréal and who cataloged all of Charles' works originally, and in fact discovered "Epitaph while he was cataloging them—as I say, all of the good ideas I've had in my life I've stolen from Andrew Homzy. It was his idea to do the fakebook [More than a Fakebook: the Music of Charles Mingus, Jazz Workshop, 1991]. Most of the things we've done, a large percentage of them, have come from Andrew. I sent him the CD, and he was saying how grand it was to perform "Todo Modo again, because that's such an important piece, and he felt it was the centerpiece of the album. You know, it's not one of the most accessible to the person who has whatever prior [preconceptions] of Mingus' music. But it was the one piece that Charles listened to every day when he was dying, the last six months we were in Mexico. And I think that's the path—at least temporarily, he would have taken that path of written music—classical music—and jazz had he lived, for a while. Then I'm sure he would have gone on to something else, too. You know, Charles always said that people should improvise in classical music; improvisation would keep it living. That was his feeling. In the old days, certainly in the concertos, composers were improvising. There weren't written notes. Charles hastened to say that if you were improvising to Beethoven, you'd better be as good as Beethoven! But nonetheless, we now feel that classical music has to be written in stone and shouldn't be tampered with—but that wasn't the idea originally. And certainly, Charles liked the combination of serious written composition which is then given breath by the musicians who play it and who bring their own perspective and their own identity into that written music. That would be the ideal from his point of view.

AAJ: Well, I couldn't agree more with your late husband. And when you say it, it sounds unassailably logically true.

SM: Doesn't it? There was a piece I read in the Times that I loved a couple of years ago saying if Mozart and Bach came back and were in New York—where would they go to find musicians of the type that they needed to play their pieces? It said they'd go [laughing] to the Village Vanguard—to find musicians that didn't just read notes, that could create interesting backgrounds to melody lines, and transpose. You know, music students tend to read notes now; they don't really learn music inside out.

AAJ: Yes, I've found myself sort of casually quizzing classical players at parties—and some have told me they've never improvised in their lives. I'm always shocked and somewhat appalled to hear it.

SM: Well, I have to say, one afternoon Bobby McFerrin was conducting, I think it was the New York Philharmonic outdoors. I went out with some friends of his, sitting under a big umbrella. It started to rain and almost all the musicians disappeared—except Bobby stayed, there was a canopy over the band, and there were a couple horn players, a flautist. Bobby started vocalizing and then he would pass the mike to this poor instrumentalist [laughing] and he was keeping up with Bobby! He was obviously not comfortable, but Bobby was forcing a certain amount of improvisation in this moment out of time because of the rain, and it was just wonderful to see the two worlds trying to cross over a little bit.

AAJ: I'm going to end this by asking you a difficult question. Normally I don't ask personal questions, but we are talking about Charles Mingus here, so I've been restraining myself from avidly asking, "what was he like? —as if you can sum up even a boring person in a few words, let alone Mingus. But I'm still going to ask you to briefly describe the Charles Mingus you knew.

SM: Well, I would say he was the most honest and most courageous person that I have known. He was a man of great imagination, utterly involved in music, and in telling the truth as he saw it and experienced it—and all that went into his music. He spent most of the hours at home at the piano composing. He was not violent at all. Charles was not a violent person. He was drawn into violence. Charles was a supersensitive artist growing up in surroundings that were eminently hostile and he was a fighter and someone who believed in what he did and he struck out—literally and figuratively. But that was not his personality at home—once he moved in. [Laughing] We fought for eight years before he moved in, but Charles at home was a very peaceful human being and utterly involved with his music. And in telling the truth; like I say, he was the most honest person I've ever met. And that could be difficult! Charles was not here to be polite or tactful. He told his truth as he saw it, on paper and verbally. If you got in the way, that was your problem [laughing].

Visit the official Mingus website.

Related Articles
Sue Mingus Interview (2002)
Tonight At Noon

More Mingus CD Reviews at AAJ.

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