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 Ellingtonor, 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 remarkableand remarkably cohesivejoint 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 musicat 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 Minguswhatever you knew or didn't know about the music.AAJ:
Now you've sort of become his defender in the worldagainst, for example, bootleggers of his recordingsand 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 musicand 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 compositionand 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] bandquite by accident, I did not start out with a mission, I did not discuss with Charles the carrying on of his musicit 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 Mingusexcept 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 himbut 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 pointthat 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 aliveyou 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 composerswhether 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 playersif 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 overwith 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.