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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?"
Bless and Amen.