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mike zwerin


By Mike Zwerin
18 March 2001

Chapter Two

Sue Mingus: Guardian of the Legacy

Few people have extended their late mate's life work more organically and with more dedication than Sue Mingus, who, it has been said, is redefining the limits of widowhood. Charles Mingus was a tough act to follow. She has extended the quality as well as the quantity of his music. Under her guidance, it has gone to places he had not yet explored during his lifetime.

She leads, manages and inspires the Mingus Big Band, an extraordinary assortment of his peers, interpreters and disciples who respected, feared and worshipped him. Sue had not been involved with his music when he was alive. Although he graced her with a song he called "Sue's Changes," the title had more to do with her magazine, Changes, which she edited and wrote for. Now, with a mock shudder, she wonders "what Charles thinks looking down on me giving press conferences about his music." Her role is spiritual and organizational, more than musical, though that too. She might be described as Guardian of the Flow. The Mingus Big Band plays every Thursday night to SRO in the Fez, beneath the Time Cafe in downtown Manhattan. The flow down there was described by columnist Stanley Crouch in the New York Daily News as "blowing the paint off the walls."

The inter-generational flock she tends played with Mingus when he was alive and with each other in various tribute situations since his death in 1979. They know his work and his approach to work. Sue says: "Charles laid out specific structures but he left space for individual musicians to bring in their own ideas. That's why his music remains so contemporary." He used to tell her how much he wanted to hear his music in a big band framework. But he stayed with smaller groups because big bands involve a lot of infrastructure and financing. Sue will do this now because she seems to be the only one available who is also able to do it.

Before the start of a tour, she types an itinerary with the name, address, fax and phone number of the hotel in, say, Liege; what time the bus will leave in the morning for the next gig in Paris and the approximate travel time. Make a mistake and there will be howls about getting up two hours early in Belgium, or arriving an hour late in France.

Extrapolating such humdrum details at jazz prices can take you into the realm of the metaphysical. For example, Sue just happened to have bought a variety pack of tiny screwdrivers at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam before a saxophone key mechanism fell apart just before a first set. It was fixed pronto. They had all laughed when she bought them – carrying motherhood too far, etcetera – and now, somewhat sheepishly, they laugh at themselves having laughed.

A multiracial meritocracy, rare in these days of counting quotas and credits, the Mingus roster reads to musicians like the New York Yankees to a baseball fan – Randy Brecker, John and Craig Handy, Frank Lacy, Gary Bartz, Kenny Drew, Jr., Earl Gardner, John Stubblefield, Andy McKee and Alex Sipiagin, the astonishing young Russian lead and jazz trumpeter. Several Mingus Big Bands might work the same evening. There are more than 100 musicians in her stable. Everybody plays offense as well as defense, as it were; there are no first and second teams. They get all shuffled up depending whos available when and where. Sue decides on the gigs and the prices, chooses the programs, the soloists, and who will be the musical director for the evening. As one Mingus Big Band directed by Steve Slagle performs in Paris, another, led by Howard Johnson and featuring Ryan Kisor and Bobby Watson, takes care of Thursday night in the Fez. And a third, directed by Frank Lacy, might be playing in Japan.

Sue's mother was a harpist, her father an industrialist who liked to sing opera but knew he wasn't good enough. She played piano growing up in Milwaukee. She and her first husband, an Italian painter (she speaks fluent Italian), had children together. Their daughter helps Sue with the office work. Sue lived in Paris for a while working in the newsroom of the New York Herald Tribune. She and Charles "never thought about getting married until one day in New York he said to Allen Ginsberg, 'Hey man, marry us.' And Allen chanted for about an hour."

The memoir she's writing about all of this includes the trip she and Charles made to Mexico after he learned he was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), and they "hung out with the witches." She scattered his ashes over the Ganges River because he asked her to. He believed in reincarnation. He did not, however, ask her to give his music another life like she did and is doing.

Wasn't it Archie Bunker who said that revenge is the best way to get even? For years, traveling around the globe, Sue has been building a list of illegally recorded and marketed copies of Mingus concerts, masters and compilations. She went through record-store bins writing down names and reference numbers of albums she suspected of being pirate or bootleg and gave them to her lawyer to verify.

Mingus was famous for ranting at listeners who sat with microphones in the first few rows. Sometimes he shut down the concert for the evening because of them. So Sue felt righteous enough. But keeping track of such details can be tiring, sort of like typing itineraries. Her hand ached. So she started putting the CDs in shopping bags and taking them right out the stores's front doors. There was nothing to be ashamed of. You couldn't call it stealing. They had been stolen from her husband in the first place. She was caught for the first time in Paris in 1991. The store manager threatened to call the police. She said: "Fine. Just call Le Monde and CNN while you're at it. This is a good story. I'll be happy to tell everybody all about it." The manager let her go.

With CDs, each copy can serve as a new master. Fidelity is not lost generationally with CDs. Sue has incorporated Revenge Records, which copies bootleg CDs and releases them anew. Revenge undersells the pirates and pays royalties to the musicians too. Talking about her next release, "The Best of the Bootlegs," Sue Mingus breaks into an infectious laugh: "What can those bandits do? Accuse me of unfair business practices?"

God Bless and Amen.


Back to Chapter One, Part Two Last Decade in Paris: Siberia - The Intrigue Factor

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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