Thirty Years On, The Music Remains Strong

Written by Ernest Barteldes on . Posted in Posts.

During his lifetome, until his untimely death from Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1979, Charles Mingus was a well-respected bassist, bandleader, activist and prolific composer who released several albums of original work ovr a short period of time. In 1959 alone, he made three albums (Mingus Ah Um, Mingus Dynasty and Blues and Roots) that are today regarded as the most important of his career.

His widow Sue Mingus, who has published several books of her late husband’s music over the years, has noticed a renewed interest in his canon—something that sparked the idea of putting together an annual Mingus high school competition, which premieres at The Manhattan School of Music with a threeday summit celebrating everything Mingus.

“What we did two years ago was to start a special series for beginners, for first-year students, for high-schoolers called Simply Mingus,” she explains. “It took off like a brush fire, and we were surprised, because most thought that Mingus’ music was too complicated, too difficult, [or] too inaccessible, and it’s amazing how these kids take the music.We discovered that there was a hunger for these charts in high schools, so we’ve been adding more and more charts every few months.”

Every Monday night, Sue Mingus directs the Mingus Legacy Band at The Jazz Standard, a venue she considers ideal for this project, which began a decade and a half ago. “We moved to the Jazz Standard in the beginning of October,” she tells us. “We at a place called the Time Cafe at Fez, we started in 1991 or 1993, and we were there for a dozen years.We went to a couple of places after that and now it’s feel like we’ve come back home, it’s the closest thing to what Fez used to feel like, and it’s a great place for us to play and it’s good for fans as well.” The Mingus summit will include the high school competition, panel discussions and also performances from jazz musicians active in the national scene. “We had been wanting to do a Mingus high school competition and we were looking for a place to hold this,” she says. “I spoke with [jazz director] Justin Di- Cioccio to see if we could hold it at the Manhattan School of Music and he said that we could hold it there. He decided to do a Mingus summit along with it, so that we have ended up with a wonderful three-day event.”

Among the participants are Pulitzer Prize–winning conductor Gunther Schuller (a longtime Mingus supporter) and bassist Boris Koslav, who will be performing alongside the Mingus Dynasty Band with one of Mingus’ original basses. “He plays with Charles’ Lionshead bass,” Sue Mingus says. “There were four basses here when Charles died.
One of them is still here, it’s between the size of a cello and a bass,
and he used it for bowing. It’s a bass that Boris loves playing, and
it’s a bass that loves to be played.”

Sue Mingus believes that
her husband’s legacy is far more present today than it was at the time
of his death. “It’s more far-reaching now than it was when Charles was
alive,” she states. “A change in perception between the time when
Charles lived and now is that he is acknowledged as one of the foremost
American composers.That was not true when he was alive—people didn’t
think of Mingus as a composer, they saw him as a virtuoso bass player,
a bandleader and a colorful character on stage. He believed he was
first and foremost a composer, but that was not the perception; people
didn’t play his music the way they played Duke Ellington.

the music is being used in movies and TV, and other people are playing
it and his life [work] is demanding, and that’s the purpose of the high
school competition—to bring this music to kids.”

> Simply Mingus

20 through Feb. 22, Manhattan School of Music, 120 Claremont Ave.
(betw. Seminary Rd. & La Salle St.), 212-749-2802; times vary, FREE