Keeping the flame alive

The Mingus Big Band were the sensation of last year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival, and the New Yorkers are back to do it all again as a stunning finale to the festival’s 10th anniversary. Kenny Mathieson investigates the making of the band with its founder, Sue Mingus.

No one who heard the Mingus Big Band last year is likely to want to miss out this time around. although for a while there it wasn’t certain if we would get the chance. The band’s booking for the final late-night slot was only confirmed after the festival’s initial leaflet went to press. but the Fruitmarket will again ring to the glorious sounds of a top-line jazz orchestra playing Charles Mingus’s mighty music.

The Mingus Big Band is not the first repertory band dedicated to that cause. but it is arguably the one which has come closest to realising his ambitions as a jazz composer. The band grew out of a landmark event in I989, when Gunter Schuller assembled and directed the first ever complete performance of Mingus’s massive Epitaph. Its success led his fourth wife. writer and editor Sue Mingus, to think about the audacious possibility of a permanent ensemble.

‘It made me really want to hear more of Charles’s - " '1 if -’ work in a big band context. By coincidence there was Charles "luau: mum-m pulls a fairly new restaurant. the Time Cafe, that had just opened in Manhatten. with a nightclub underneath. important composers in the genre. along with the sclerosis. at the age of 56in 1979, wrote challenging They didn’t have a format in mind for the club, and l likes of Duke Ellington and George Russell. He was large-scale works throughout his life. but rarely guess they just felt that they didn’t have anything to always regarded as one of the great bass players of managed to hear them played as he would have lose by taking a chance. and we didn’t either. I put the post-war era. but his music received a more wished. The success of the band has also laid to rest together a big band and they gave us a contract for a mixed reaction in his lifetime. and his real the theory that there could be no Mingus music month. That was almost five years ago, and we’ve achievement as a composer is only now being fully without Mingus himself. a view expressed by been down there ever since.’ recognised. trombonist and close collaborator Jimmy Knepper

Mingus was never able to establish a regular large As often happens with ground-breaking figures. it after the composer’s death. and shared by many in the ensemble of this quality in his lifetime. but his legacy has taken the passage of time to appreciate the full jazz community. is in good hands. The band are re—introducing magnitude of his creativity. Mingus was a larger- ‘I took my cue from Charles himself he always relatively unplayed material alongside more familiar than-life. multi-faceted personality, and his said that he considered himself first and foremost to music. providing a greater sample of the range and unpredictable music reflected all the diverse aSpects be a composer, and being a bass player and a band- glorious diversity of his work. which ranged from of that personality across a huge spectrum of light leader came second. The nest of the world did not monumental cascades of controlled anarchy through and shade. beauty and despair. share that view for most of his life. but he knew who to an almost Ellingtonian tonal lushness and ‘Charles’s music was so identified with his he was. I think he felt that his music would last. He complexity of orchestral colour. personality - I think a lot of people stayed away from knew, and he was right.

The individual contributions of improvising it in his lifetime because they found that a little ‘lt’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and it takes a musicians were always crucial to the creation of his intimidating. It reflects all the joy and anger and musician who relishes a challenge to play it. The music, and the band are well-served in that regard. passion of Charles. and also his meditative. spiritual band is like a university for a lot of the younger with the cream of the New York scene to call on. Jazz side - he has written some of the most beautiful musicians. who get to play his music with people is regarded as essentially an improvised music, and ballads in jazz. or any music for that matter, and that who really understand it. I’ve seen certain musicians its compositional processes have been closely tied up is an aspect of him. too. He wanted his music to take to it like a duck to water people like Philip with the spontaneous creativity of the improviser, a reflect who and what he was. and he said that was Harper and Frank Lacy will acknowledge that they fact which has tended to devalue the role of hard because he was changing all the time.’ have had their lives changed by playing this music. composition. Mingus. who died of a heart attack in Mexico. and that is very exciting to see.’

Mingus stands among the handful of really which ended his sufferings from amyotrophic lateral McEwan ’s Old F ruitmarker. Sun 7. 10.30pm

The List 28 Jun-ll Jul 199619