One of the -- if not the -- premier bassists in the history of jazz, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) was also a composer in many musical styles, a performer of wide talents, a prose writer of deep thoughts and an outspoken, opinionated observer about...well...everything.
Columbia/Legacy has released Charles Mingus: The Complete Columbia & RCA Albums Collection, a ten-CD box set which features studio albums (including signature release Mingus Ah Um), packed with rare and alternate takes, live concerts and Epitaph, his crowning achievement, a 500-page work-in-progress score that was pieced together, completed and premiered a decade after his death.
Art Attack spoke with his widow and fierce artistic protector and advocate, Sue Mingus (who also wrote a memoir of her life with Charles, Tonight at Noon), about the set and the legacy of her late husband.
Art Attack: How did the project come together?
Sue Mingus: Events are cropping up to celebrate the 90th birthday, and this is a big box set. I think Charles would be pleased that Epitaph is included. And Tijuana Moods. He would be less pleased with the CD of outtakes, as I mention in the liner notes, where I vented my displeasure. But I appreciated that the record company let me do that!
For some reason, RCA shelved the Tijuana Moods album for five years. And in that time, Miles Davis released Sketches of Spain. And he got a lot of attention for that. Charles felt shortchanged.
Art Attack: Do you have a favorite record in the set?
Sue Mingus: Charles wrote in so many styles. Love songs. Political pieces. Latin pieces. It's hard to pick one because his music sprawled and splattered all over the place -- music from around the world that he then turned into Mingus music. And it's so personal, so you can't pick any one thing.
Art Attack: When I was first learning about jazz, what got me about his music was a lot of times he has all these instruments doing different things...sort of a controlled chaos...but it all came together somehow.
Sue Mingus: He made use of collective improvisation that sounds like chaos; he used it as a device, but he'd then move on or write some beautiful ballad. He did a really good, tender piano album -- and he's a bassist! But he used to compose on piano. He ran the gamut, from the quiet and spiritual to the energetic and bombastic. People would ask him how he categorized his music, and he would always say, "Can't you just call it Mingus music?"
Art Attack: You write movingly about the end of his life in Tonight at Noon [Mingus suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease and died in Mexico while seeking treatment]. Would you write anything differently today?
Sue Mingus: I would change a few verbs, but not really. To see a man who was so tremendously powerful and physical and to see him reduced so much by disease...yet not lose any of his appetites. That was something. That was remarkable to me: the majesty and the courage he showed. For being "The Angry Man of Jazz," he was never angry or cursing the gods or anything about his condition.
Art Attack: That's another thing. The adjectives often used to describe him are things like "angry," "mercurial" and "temperamental." Not a full picture, of course, but fair assessment or not?
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Sue Mingus: I don't know; people are always telling me stories I don't want to hear! (laughs) But Charles had good reason to be angry. He may have overdone it and it got out of his control, but when you grow up in a society in the '20s through the '50s, and you are opposed at every moment because of the color of your skin, this can change a quiet man. So Charles spoke out and lashed out and fought his battles. Normally, almost always for the right reasons. He did overdo it at times, but he took action. A lot of people didn't.
Art Attack: What else is planned for the year?
Sue Mingus: Well, there is another five-CD box set coming out from Mosaic. We have three repertory bands playing on Monday nights at a club here in New York. The Big Band has been touring. We finally won a Grammy last year. And the Mingus High School Competition, now in its fifth year at the Manhattan School of Music. That's the most exciting to me.
For more information on the life and music of Charles Mingus, visit www.mingusmingusmingus.com.