Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Undiminished

By Ron Wynn

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  Charles Mingus was such an extraordinary bassist and such an imposing bandleader that many people overlooked the musical attribute he most valued: his compositional skills. But in the years since his death in 1979, Mingus' music has gotten the widespread exposure it truly deserves, thanks in large part to his widow Sue, whose efforts helped form the group that evolved into the present-day Mingus Big Band.

The 14-piece unit, which makes its first-ever Nashville appearance Saturday as part of the Great Performances at Vanderbilt series, belongs to an organization of more than 100 rotating performers, all of whom rank among the finest jazz musicians worldwide. Two editions of the band perform regularly: One has appeared every Thursday night for the past six years at the Time Cafe in Greenwich Village, while another incarnation tours and records periodically. The band has generated so much interest both domestically and internationally that they're now clients of the Herbert Barrett Management Inc., a firm that has historically only represented classical and opera performers. The Mingus Big Band's last two releases, Gunslinging Birds and Live in Time, were both nominated for Grammys, and the former album won the 1996 INDIE Award for Best Mainstream Jazz Recording. The ensemble was also voted Best Big Band in this year's Jazz Times and Down Beat critics' polls.

All the acclaim is indeed something to be proud of, but Sue Mingus, who remains highly involved in all the band's activities, derives the most satisfaction from knowing that the media attention keeps her late husband's music in the public eye. "Charles always said he was a composer first and foremost," she said during a recent phone interview. "But...because he was so well-known as a musician, people didn't tend to perform his music the way that they would play Ellington's or Thelonious Monk's."

It really is a fitting tribute, then, that the Mingus Big Band evolved from what was supposed to be simply a two-night stand. When the bassist passed away nearly two decades ago, Sue Mingus was contacted about assembling musicians for a two-night memorial concert at Carnegie Hall. The players gathered for the tribute quickly coalesced into a band devoted solely to playing Mingus' compositions; the main prerequisite for membership was that the participating musicians had to have played with the bassist at some point during their careers. "We called it the Mingus Dynasty, after an album he'd recorded for Columbia," Sue Mingus recalls. "I had no idea we would even keep this going beyond the two-day tribute, but there was such a great response we decided to continue."

The current edition of the Mingus Big Band includes saxophonists Ronnie Cuber and John Stubblefield and trumpeter Randy Brecker, all of whom toured and/or recorded with Mingus. As the band has evolved, membership has opened up to younger musicians who never had the chance to play with the master. But current members such as trumpeter Mark Shim and Russian bassist Andy McKee have thoroughly studied and absorbed his works.

Sue Mingus says it's tough selecting new recruits from such a large group of willing participants. "We look for musicians with a distinctive personality, who are also able to both improvise and read with the same proficiency as classical players. You've also got to be able to play in an ensemble; this is very demanding music, but with all the colors involved, when things work it's quite a magical experience."

An imposing presence Charles Mingus--the touring big band helps bring his music to the masses 18 years after his death
Charles Mingus wrote his first concert piece, "Half-Mast Inhibition," as a 17-year-old; in the ensuing years, he recorded more than 100 albums for Columbia, Atlantic, Impulse, and other labels while writing over 300 scores. After his death, The National Endowment for the Arts provided grants to establish the Let My Children Hear Music Foundation, which ensured the preservation of all his scores, recordings, original manuscripts, photographs, and correspondence, which are now housed in the Library of Congress; microfilm of his compositions is available in the Music Division of the New York Public Library. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) awarded Mingus a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.

As the recent honor suggests, interest in Mingus and his music remains high. Much of the credit can surely go to the Mingus Big Band, whose next release, Que Viva Mingus, will be issued early next year. The album reflects the composer's longtime affinity for Latin music, featuring pieces that merge jazz with cumbia, bomba, and mambo rhythms, along with new renditions of compositions previously released on Tijuana Moods, Cumbia & Jazz Fusion, and Epitaph. The set also marks the debut of the piece "Moods & Mambo," a work Mingus wrote when he was 27 but never recorded during his lifetime.

While the Mingus Big Band journeys to Nashville, Sue Mingus will be traveling overseas. She'll be at the London Film Festival Sunday to attend the debut screening of Charles Mingus--Triumph of the Underdog, a documentary she coproduced. New Jersey label Shanachie will release the film on video domestically next year. In the meantime, fans can find out more about this musical legend at the Mingus Web site, www.Mingus.com

"I didn't really know much about jazz when I met Charles," Sue Mingus says. "The band has not only been an inspiration for me, but it's provided an education, and most importantly, it's ensured that his music enjoys the recognition and popularity that it deserves."

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