Mingus: the next generation

With the Mingus Big Band, the great jazzman's widow has created the perfect tribute to his uncompromising music.
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The Independent Culture
When Charles Mingus, bass player, bandleader, composer and arranger died on 5 January 1979 of Lou Gehrig's disease, his legend already loomed so large that it threatened to overwhelm his music. A passionate, turbulent, multi-faceted bear of a man who berated his audiences, his band and racist America, today he remains a largely misunderstood figure whose accomplishments are too big to ignore yet forbiddingly complex.

Mingus poured his frustrations into his autobiography, Beneath the Underdog (Payback Press), which made it clear that the fervour of his music was proportionate to the traumatic sources that inspired it - the equivocal position of a black artist in a white entertainment business, eviction from his apartment, a nervous breakdown, a gradual return to work and finally a debilitating illness just as the magnitude of his talent began to be recognised.

Yet for a man who liked to tell stories through his music, it was his tempestuous personality that comes through clearest. "Charles had his share of anguish, his problems overcoming obstacles, but he was a man of enormous courage and honesty," says his wife, Sue Graham Mingus. "Despite ups and downs, he always considered himself lucky to write the music he wanted and perform it." It is precisely because this music sounds like an extension of the man that his importance as a composer has been overlooked.

A virtuoso bass player, he was also a manipulator of ensemble textures with a precise ear for the blues. His melodies were so personal and his use of rhythm and harmony so dramatic that his music constituted an idiom. An unpredictable man, his wife says all he ever wanted was to be loved, yet he once famously assaulted his trombonist, a close friend. It was this volatility that gave rise to the 18-part Epitaph, his longest work, performed only once in his lifetime - disastrously - at New York's Town Hall in 1962. Marred by inadequate preparation, the occasion was so traumatic that Mingus never referred to it again. After his death, a researcher, Andrew Homzy, discovered the frayed, unfinished manuscript, and handed it to musicologist and conductor Gunther Schuller to reconstruct.

When Epitaph was finally pre miered under Schuller's baton in 1989, it was the first time Sue Mingus had heard her late husband's work played by a large ensemble. "It was such an experience - it shows a unique side of Charles," she says. "It was his masterwork, yet it shows his personality very clearly. Through it, I realised his music deserved to be heard in this way, with its dense harmonies and complex structures." As an experiment, she organised a 14-piece band. "We had a small band called Mingus Dynasty, which played a tribute to Charles at Carnegie Hall the year he died, that had just kept going. So I chose musicians from Mingus Dynasty and the Epitaph band for the Mingus Big Band."

On the basis of a one-month contract, the 14-piece ensemble opened in New York's Time Cafe at 380 Lafayette Street, just round the corner from Tower Records on Broadway. "My contract was from 5 September - to 5 October 1991 and we're still there!" Sue Mingus smiles. "It was a new club; they had a restaurant upstairs, a pastry shop, a sheik bar called Fez, and a basement nightclub they hadn't figured out what to do with. We took the Thursday night in the basement, we had nothing to lose and neither did they.'

The original band, like every subsequent edition, was stocked full of New York's finest jazz musicians. "We were lucky, because The New York Times got to hear about us and they did a piece encouraging their readers to hurry down because they said it wouldn't last. That piece certainly put us on the map." While the band has had several musical directors, the real director is Sue Mingus herself. "I'm there to encourage and incite and commission arrangements," she says. "I'm very involved with the band. I choose the musicians each week, who's going to conduct and direct and encourage certain pieces so that there is a balance between blues, swinging pieces, the more difficult works Charles wrote and his better known stuff."

Although she knew little about jazz before she married, Sue Mingus had played piano and studied composition. A former publisher of an underground newspaper, she met Mingus in 1964. Their on-off relationship survived the ups and downs of her husband's often melancholy life, and she was there at the end when he went to Mexico, in search of a cure from a well- known mystic, and where he died at the age of 56.

She remains conscious that the band should not slavishly copy Mingus recordings, but honour the creative spirit Mingus fostered. "There were so many sides to Charles. I try and change the conductors and music directors because each musician has his own personality. One might favour his own arrangements, another will want to play his favourite Mingus composition every night, so I'll ask someone to do the first set, someone to do the second set, to keep an edginess and unpredictability - that's what Charles sought, this element of unexpectedness."

This month, the band's fifth album Blues and Politics (Dreyfus FDM366032) is released. It opens with a previously unreleased track by Mingus himself. "It was spliced from a newly discovered audio tape from the Sixties," says Sue. "Mingus was improvising during a performance at the Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on 13 May 1965, barely two months after a march for voting rights in Selma had ended with tear gas and clubbings. He can be heard calling out references to other tragedies and scandals of the time." As Mingus switches to the words of his composition "Freedom", the Big Band's new recording of the tune gradually appears beneath Mingus's voice in a seamless blend of the past and present.

"At the end of the 20th century, Mingus is still speaking out, his uncompromising concern with justice and freedom of expression is as timely as any voice today," Sue Mingus says of her husband's album. Indeed, there is a telling contemporary relevance to his compositions that forces us to consider, in their sheer ambition, Mingus the composer. No longer does his music appear to be shaped by the rage of the underdog; instead it stands out as an acerbic commentary on America's optimistic self-image.

The Mingus Big Band plays Ronnie Scott's, Frith Street, London W1 (0171- 439 0747), to 21 August