Mingus: the next generation

With the Mingus Big Band, the great jazzman's widow has created the perfect tribute to his uncompromising music.

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

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Voices
The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash