Mingus Lives: Sue Mingus Receives an NEA Grant to Preserve Charles Mingus's Legacy

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Head shot of Sue Mingus

Sue Mingus first met her future husband in 1964, when Charles Mingus was appearing at the Five Spot in New York City. The couple lived together, not marrying until more than a decade later. In an October 1979 interview with the Washington Post, Sue Mingus remembered, "We just didn't think it was necessary . . .Actually, we were 'married' by Allen Ginsberg in the mid-60s. Charles just said, 'Hey man, marry us.' And he did. He chanted for an hour." Photo courtesy of Jazz Workshop, Inc.

1988"How did I become involved in Mingus projects? Simply, I was here at home and had access to the material. Charles and I did not discuss my carrying on his legacy . . . I was only peripherally involved in his music except for the pleasure of listening to his bands and being steeped in his music at home where he spent most of his time composing at the piano. The piano was the center of his gravity and his existence. When he was dying in Mexico we did not discuss the future of his music. We were concerned with the present, dealing with witches and healers in Cuernavaca and trying to beat the rap."

                                                                                                    Sue Mingus
                                                                                       from An Open Letter

The Washington Post obituary of musician-composer Charles Mingus included this remark by critic (and NEA Jazz Master) Nat Hentoff: "Mingus hovers over his men like a brooding Zeus making up the final score card for eternity." By the time Mingus died from a heart attack on January 5, 1979, after years of battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, he had an indelible reputation as a virtuoso bass player, a prolific and groundbreaking composer, and, to quote the Post, "a seemingly indomitable [bandleader], who led his sidemen through performances as if he were directing a cavalry charge."

Born in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, in 1922, Charles Mingus grew up in California, learning to play the trombone and cello before switching to the bass. He toured with big band greats including Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory before settling in New York where he continued to play with legendary musicians like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Duke Ellington. In his 40-year career, Mingus recorded more than 60 albums, most of them featuring his original compositions.

The musician's widow, Sue Mingus, became the force behind preserving her husband's legacy, a role she characterizes as unexpected. In a 2006 interview with All About Jazz, she noted, "You know, when I started the first band--quite by accident, I did not start out with a mission, I did not discuss with Charles the carrying on of his music--it was a tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, a two-night concert, and I was asked to form a band. And that was the genesis of the first Mingus Dynasty band. And we kept that going; it became apparent during those tribute concerts that nobody played Mingus...And that was one of the reasons to keep the band going."

Sue Mingus had started protecting her husband's musical legacy even before he died, actively working to remove pirated copies of his work from stores. In the liner notes for Revenge! The Legendary Paris Concert, she wrote, "For years I have rifled through record bins around the world, while on tour, removing illegal Mingus product. I have done this while Charles Mingus was alive and since his death. . . I have stood in the center of record stores and ripped open the difficult plastic CD covers and left them sitting on top of bins. With the exception of Paris, and one store in Chicago, I have never been stopped."

After her husband's death, Sue Mingus worked with musicologist Andrew Homzy to catalog the late composer's vast archives. In 1988, she received an NEA Music Fellowship of $20,000 to support "the continuing process of organizing, cataloging, reconstructing, and preserving the scores, recordings, memorabilia, and musical and critical commentary of bassist and composer Charles Mingus."

During the cataloging process, Homzy discovered the 500-page score for Epitaph, a symphonic work of more than 4,000 measures composed by Charles Mingus over several decades. Comprising 19 movements for 31 musicians, Epitaph has a playing time of more than two hours.

With the support of an NEA Jazz Special Projects grant of $30,000, Epitaph premiered at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall in June 1989, a decade after the composer's death. A Billboard review raved, "Gorgeous melodies give way to dark, dense sonorities; tempestuous pronouncements contrast with gospel-inspired petitions. It reflects perfectly Mingus's restless, exploratory nature." The New Yorker enthused that the work, "represents the first advance in jazz composition since Ellington's Black, Brown, and Beige, written in 1943."

In 1992 the Library of Congress acquired the Charles Mingus archives from Sue Mingus, noting in the press release announcing the acquisition that it would "promote the Mingus creative legacy by performances, recordings, lectures, and publications so that his art can be better and more fully and even more appropriately appreciated by the public we serve." The purchase was especially significant as it was the Library's "most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz" as well as its first acquisition of materials by an African-American composer.

Housed in the Library's Music Division and Recorded Sound Reference Center, the collection comprises approximately 15,000 items, including scores, the bassist's personal and business correspondence, photographs of the Mingus family, paper memorabilia, and voice and music recordings.

Sue Mingus continues to shepherd her husband's legacy, including three bands--Mingus Big Band, Mingus Orchestra, and Mingus Dynasty; a record label devoted to recordings by Charles Mingus and of his music; a comprehensive Mingus Web site; and the Let My Children Hear Music foundation, which provides jazz education programs at the high school and college level. In the recent All About Jazz interview, she notes, "... Charles as a bandleader and virtuoso bass player is past. That is gone forever. We have records, but what is living, breathing, is the music itself. These musicians, as you say, keep it alive--you know, music dies if it's not played. But I think that Charles left such a huge body of composition that it's not going to be buried anywhere, whether I'm around or not."