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.


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