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Tucson Weekly Making Mingus Music

Nogales native Charlie Mingus had a genius for combining musical genres.

By Dave McElfresh

MARCH 30, 1998:  WHEN WE THINK of Latin jazz, we think of Cuban or Brazilian jazz, but never Mexican jazz--or at least only once, when Charles Mingus, the most important bassist in jazz history (sorry, Jaco) released Tijuana Moods back in 1957, an album that stands as the best offering of an exceptionally fertile career. Not that the temperamental artist sat down at the piano with a Rand-McNally, searching for unique avenues of inspiration.

"Charles went to Mexico because he'd broken up with his wife," recalls Sue Mingus, the late bassist's last spouse and the figure behind the ongoing Mingus Big Band. "He went down for a night on the town--or a few nights on the town--to forget the blues."

Mingus was living in Southern California at the time, and Tijuana was the closest border town. "He and his drummer Danny Richmond had a blast," she remembers. "And out of that came Tijuana Moods. The mariachis were following them around, trying to figure out what they'd want to hear."

What Mingus wanted to hear eventually came from his own head, establishing yet another uncommon tie between the Southwest and jazz.

The first came back in 1922, when Mingus was born in Nogales, Arizona--considering the tedious environment, from the start there was reason to cultivate a volatile personality. And though his temper got him tossed out of Duke Ellington's band--for attempting to kill trombonist Juan Tizol on stage with a fire ax--Mingus became so monumental a figure that he still ranks in nearly any critic's Top-10 list of all-time jazz players. His big-band music contains a dissonant, soulful crying that places him outside the mainstream. Mingus' band sounds like music born out of oppression, something with which he had considerable experience.

Though hardly anyone knows the composition's title or realizes Mingus was its author, almost everyone knows the sinister theme of "Good-bye Pork-Pie Hat," which the bassist wrote in honor of saxophonist Lester Young.

"In any one piece, Charles had the genius of being able to put all these different kinds of music and different rhythms and have them come out seamlessly," says Sue, perfectly summing up Mingus' gift to jazz. "It's quite amazing, the chemical changes that take place. As with Duke and Jellyroll Morton, certain people can just throw everything but the kitchen sink into their music and it comes out with that composer's stamp on it."

His obvious affection for the Southwest went far beyond Tijuana Moods; it was also where he would spend his last days. "The last concert that Charles did was at the State University Theater in Phoenix in 1977," Sue recalls. "And I would suspect that, because he found out he had Lou Gehrig's Disease around Thanksgiving, that the concert must have been in either September or October. It was after that concert that we ended the tour and flew back to New York, and started the battery of tests. We went to an Amish health center in Pennsylvania for two or three weeks, just trying everything."

Mingus had a Central/South American tour lined up which he turned over to Lionel Hampton and Gerry Mulligan. Mulligan ended up taking the Mexican portion, hooking up with a sick friend in the care of a Mexican curandera (healer) by the name of Pachita. Mulligan suggested the healer to Mingus. Sue and Mingus hoped for the best, moving to Cuernavaca, an hour and a half from Mexico City. The attempts at curing the bassist were to no avail, "but it turned out to be the best thing we could have done," admits Sue. "We went all over Mexico, doing mudbaths and cures--it was a very active period instead of just sitting and looking out the window in New York."

Mingus died January 5, 1979, at age 56. Coincidentally, 56 whales beached themselves in Mexico that same day. "Charles would have loved it," Sue laughs. "He loved those larger-than-life things, like the thunder in the cloudless sky the moment Charlie Parker died. He would have felt it was warranted and wouldn't have been at all surprised."

Sue keeps her late husband's music alive by perpetuating the Mingus Big Band, an ever-changing lineup of impressive jazz players who reinterpret the bassist's compositions with his same loose and adventurous spirit. Largely Latin, the group's newest release, revisits some of the cuts from Tijuana Moods.

"It's amazing how Charles could take those Latin rhythms and make them his own," says Sue. "...Make them into Mingus music."

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