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Mingus on Mingus

2009 March 27
by Susan Asher

Mingus_2008_0181Sue Mingus, widow of one of the all-time great bass players and composers, Charles Mingus, is doing all she can to carry on her late husband’s compositions consisting of more than 300 tunes. Having studied classical and jazz, Charles Mingus was at the forefront of avant-garde music. Ballet companies have danced to his music, and pop icons Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello each individually partnered with him to play and write lyrics to his tunes.

Before he created his own band, Mingus toured with bands such as Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, and Lionel Hampton, and recorded with the all-stars, including Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Duke Ellington.

Since his death at age 56 of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1979, Sue has carried on his legacy, creating three separate Mingus bands devoted to playing the composer’s music. While any of the bands might tour throughout the year, The Charles Mingus Big Band will be playing April 4 in Atlanta at The Rialto Center for the Arts. It will also be giving a free master class.

Sue Mingus talked to me from her office in New York.

SA: I understand you have three different Mingus bands: the Mingus Big Band, the Mingus Orchestra, and the Mingus Dynasty. In what ways do the bands differ?

SM: We have a residency every Monday night in New York at a club called the Jazz Standard. The bands take turns performing different Mondays. We started off originally many years ago with The Mingus Dynasty, which is a seven-piece band. It performed Charles’ master work, “Epitaph,” which is a 2½-hour composition that was conducted by Gunther Schuller and written for 31 musicians. After hearing the heft and power of this music on a grander scale, we doubled The Dynasty and it became the Mingus Big Band, a band of 14 musicians, rather than seven. This probably is the best-known version of the band. It played at a club here in New York called Fez for a dozen years before they closed down. The other band (The Mingus Orchestra) grew as the result of the club owner wanting a second band to play at another of his clubs in New York City, which seemed a little odd, like it was cutting the baby in half. Rather than just repeat the big band, I got together with some conductors and arrangers and we tossed ideas around, and we came up with an ensemble, which is a bit more exotic and unique in jazz, with instruments that aren’t so common, like French horn, bassoon, bass clarinet, and so forth. So it’s a different sound. We concentrate a little more on the compositional aspect of Mingus music, less on the soloing. We’re doing an event this coming Monday, a collaboration with actors that will be reading from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” We’ll have two big American voices, Mingus and Walt Whitman’s facing off with one another. We have different projects and events that involve these different bands.

SA: I wonder if mixing music with poetry is becoming a trend. Two incredible jazz musicians, Don Davis, a sax player, and pianist and composer Joe Deleault, are just some of the musicians who have teamed up with poet F.D. Reeve, the father of Christopher Reeve, to create a poetry-jazz project. And Sophie Auster (author Paul Auster’s daughter) reads poetry to the music of Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp of the band One Ring Zero.

SM: I know at the Jazz Standard, where we play, about a year ago, it brought back a jazz and poetry event with two of our former poet laureates: Charles Simic and Robert Pinsky. And there were lines around the block. One wondered if there could be a kind of hunger for this kind of experimentation. And I have gone out recently to hear poetry and music events just to see if there were any good ideas I could steal. But it can be dangerous to bring two marvelous things together and enhance them both rather than diminish them, because it doesn’t always work. Sometimes they step on each other. And poetry gets diffused if the music doesn’t work with it.

SA: How did you feel about Joni Mitchell putting words to Charles’ music?

SM: That’s a different way of combining it, when you’re writing lyrics for music that exists, or writing music for lyrics that exist. What we’re doing now is bringing (together) two things that already (pre)exist. Yeah, Joni wrote lyrics and Elvis Costello wrote lyrics for Charles’ music. Wonderful lyrics!

SA: It must be expensive to take 14 band members on the road and come to Atlanta. How do you decide which band tours?

SM: It depends on which band is requested. It depends on what (the booker’s) situation is and what their festival is all about. The Mingus Big Band and the Dynasty are the best known.

SA: What type of systems are in place for the bands to continue after you leave the helm?

SM: I wish you hadn’t asked that question. I don’t know. I think the music has entered into the general consciousness. The music is out there. I don’t think it needs me. I may have helped speed up the process, but Charles left one of the largest legacies of compositions in 20th century American music, second only to the great Duke Ellington. Charles gave us over 300 compositions. It’s such an enormous variety and such personal music. It’s unique in its own way, and I think it will be carried on the way any great music lives on. There are many aspects to what we do. There’s a publishing arm. We have a publisher, Hal Leonard, the largest music publisher in the country, and they do all our publishing. We publish educational books, fake books, play-alongs, charts, a number of Mingus Big Band charts. We started a series a couple of years ago called Simply Mingus, for beginning students, that makes the music a little more accessible to somebody who’s just learning. That took off like wildfire. A lot of band directors buy those charts for high schools and colleges. And we just started our first Charles Mingus high school competition (a free 3-day summit in Manhattan where children learn to play Mingus’ music), and we hold clinics and workshops run by different musicians who play in the Mingus repertory bands. So, you see, this is a sprawl. It doesn’t need one person behind it. We also have a booking agency. The Big Band just came back from the Far East, where they were in China, Australia, and New Zealand. And we’re going to Italy in May. And this summer The Dynasty will tour Italy, Yugoslavia, Spain, England, and the Netherlands.

SA: Tell me how the music has changed over the years.

SM: The music changes with the musicians the way Charles intended it to. You know, there are a lot of open spaces in his music, and room for musicians to come in and bring their own sound and interpretation of the music, which is what keeps it modern and moving forward all the time. It changes and grows as the musicians approach the music. The music is that wonderful combination of written composition and all this freedom to bring in individual interpretations of the music.

SA: You were a journalist in the sixties. And your memoir, “Tonight at Noon,” which came out in 2002, was named Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Are you writing anything now?

SM: Yes. I’m working on another book.

SA: Can you tell me about it?

SM: No. It involves the music world. It’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction.

SA: Can you tell me about the newspapers you worked for?

SM: One was called The New York Free Press, a political paper back in the sixties. And then another paper called Changes, which was a music magazine. It came out at the time Rolling Stone started in San Francisco. They were on the West Coast and we were on the East Coast. We wrote about rock, jazz, classical, all music.

SA: I heard that Mingus hung out with some abstract expressionists in the sixties. Do you know how they might have influenced his music?

SM: I think everything around influenced him, a leaf falling from a tree, whatever is around you, the art of the time, and the different kinds of music around. As you know from his music, he drew from classical forms, Latin music, bebop, pop, rock, Dixieland. Whatever was out there (he used). That magic chemistry fused everything into Mingus music.

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