THE INTERVIEW: Legendary Jazz Figure Sue Mingus

I had the pleasure of sitting down with a living legend in not only the world of jazz but in American music, Mrs. Sue Mingus, the widow of the late composer/bassist Charles Mingus. Like Miles and Coltrane, Mingus was a giant and yet, in the past, many have shied away from his music because of the complex structure of his compositions. For the past 30 years, Sue Mingus has made it her mission to not only keep her husband’s musical legacy alive with the Mingus bands and the upcoming Charles Mingus High School Competition & Festival on Valentine’s Day weekend, but also trust that there are listeners out there whose ears are mature enough to appreciate his vast, innovative body of work.

How did the Mingus bands come about?

Mingus Dynasty was the first band. About four or five months after Charles died, there was a two-day tribute at Carnegie Hall. A number of other bands performed there—I think one of Alvin Ailey’s dancers performed. We had a number of different events and in connection with that I was asked to form a band to play Mingus. I had never done anything like this, but I looked at the make-up of bands and some of the seminal albums at Columbia Records and I put together a seven-piece band—four horns and a rhythm section.

It turned out that at the whole event this band was the only one that played Mingus’ music. It suddenly revealed that people didn’t want to trespass the territory; Charles was such a powerful figure and dominated his music so much so that people didn’t really think of this whole gigantic body of compositions as being there to use like Duke Ellington’s. Other people weren’t really playing his music so that was the reason we kept this band going. We gave it the name Mingus Dynasty, which is also the title of one of Charles’s albums. It seemed like a fitting title because these are musicians carrying on the Mingus legacy. And it just kept going for about 10 years until we ultimately doubled the size and formed The Mingus Big Band, which has 14 musicians.

There are three Mingus bands: The Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty and we have another band who alternates here called The Mingus Orchestra, which is a 10-piece band. Each band brings something different to the music. The Orchestra focuses on the compositional aspects of Mingus. Their instruments are more unusual, more exotic to jazz—bassoon, French horn, bass clarinet, which we don’t normally hear. There’s also guitar, which we don’t have in either one of the other bands.

Has being a member of the Mingus bands allowed musicians to hone and develop their crafts?

This music is like a University; it’s very demanding, it is challenging music and it calls upon individual musicians to reach inside themselves and play who they are. It’s very open music, there are a lot of spaces and I think it’s one of the aspects of the music that’s very exciting and it draws musicians to play the music because there is so much freedom written in the music that they can bring their own voices and their own ideas when they [perform] solo. Charles left an enormously varied [musical] legacy—the second largest in American music after Duke Ellington. The music is steeped in the blues but there are also European classic forms, bebop, and Latin music; there’s just about every kind of music you can imagine that Charles drew upon and used within the structure of his compositions.

Who are some known jazz artists that have come from the Mingus bands?

Randy Brecker has played with us for a long time. Most of these musicians have bands of their own or make their own recordings or play with other musicians. They are all very active in the music scene. James Carter, saxophonist, has played with us originally. There have been so many that have passed through our Mingus bands. We have an enormous pool of musicians. We probably have over 100 musicians who’ve learned this music. Because of the nature of the Mingus band, we play one night every week and we’ve been doing this for over 15 years now. And not everyone’s available every week, you know. The musicians may have other gigs and opportunities and as a result we have a large number of musicians on each instrument. That’s just the nature of the beast. We look for musicians who are available and musicians are always coming into town and you hear about new people who come in and sit in the band. If there’s a new player in town, word travels like a brush fire and you find out about it.

What has the experience been like for both bands to perform at the Jazz Standard?

It’s been like coming home. We had a wonderful tenure at Fez, also known as Time Café. We had a residency for I don’t remember if it was 10 years or a dozen years, but we missed it profoundly when it closed, which was about five years ago. We went to a few other places and finally we came here. We celebrated our first anniversary here in October 2009. And concurrently, we will produce a Mingus Big Band album, Live at Jazz Standard, which was recorded last New Year’s Eve. It was broadcast nationally on NPR with such a wonderful array of artists like drummer Jeff Tain Watts and trombonist Conrad Herwig.

We were also celebrating the entrance into 2009, which marks the 50th anniversary of a number of seminal albums in jazz; Mingus had three (Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty, and Blues & Roots), Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, etc. This was a banner year for jazz, like 1939 was for movies (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, etc.) As we entered 2009, the music that we played that will be on the live recording are pieces that originally came out 50 years ago.

Mingus is highly regarded as a legendary figure in jazz primarily as a bassist. Do you think that his prowess as a composer has been underestimated?

Charles’s music was, on the surface, more difficult. He was a larger than life persona on stage—very intimidating. And I think people thought of it as “Mingus’ music.” This is the main thing that has changed since Charles died. Originally, people thought of him as a great personality on stage, a virtuoso bass player, and a bandleader. He was all those things. But they did not think first and foremost that he was a composer the way they think of Duke Ellington. When I started the Mingus Dynasty, people would say, particularly in Europe, “How can you have a Mingus band without Mingus?” It was his personality that was so big. And I took my cue from Charles who always said that he was first and foremost a composer and he knew that he would live on as a composer.

His composition, Epitaph, measures out to be possibly the longest piece of music in history—especially in jazz. Will this work ever be performed again? Did Mingus ever intend for this work to be performed?

This piece was recorded and videotaped and it was released this year. We premiered it in 1989, 10 years after Charles died. He had attempted to premiere it back in 1962. It was 19 or 21 sections, it takes over two and a half hours to perform and we play a lot of the individual pieces in the Mingus bands. There’s a piece called “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” a piece called “O.P.,” (after Oscar Pettiford), and a wonderful ballad called “Noon Night.” There are a number of these pieces that have been arranged for a smaller format. We also published the enormous 500-page score for Epitaph and that is also available.

It’s been more than 30 years since his death. Why continue to keep the Mingus legacy alive?

I think like any good thing, as long as people enjoy it and certainly the musicians love playing the music and the audience has grown. Charles’s music, when he died, was considered difficult and for many inaccessible. That has changed dramatically in the last 30 years because our ears grow up to music. When Stravinsky was first big, nobody composed his music. So things become more familiar. It’s not out of reach anymore. We did our first Charles Mingus High School Competition last year and we’re doing it again in February on Valentine’s Day weekend. And if you can hear those high school kids play this music, they are phenomenal. His music, more or less, keeps itself alive.

The Mingus High School Competition takes place Sunday, February 14th at the John C Borden Auditorium, Manhattan School of Music, 122nd Street & Broadway, NYC. It’s FREE and open to the public. For more information, go to the website HERE

You can also catch the Mingus Ensembles every Monday at the Jazz Standard with two sets at 7:30PM & 9:30PM, which sees rotating Mingus ensembles – Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big Band, Mingus Orchestra. For more info, visit www.jazzstandard.com.

Shannon J. Effinger

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