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Music

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Monterey Jazz Festival

Ensemble keeping jazz great Mingus among us

Web posted on: Tuesday, September 15, 1998 4:39:23 PM

From Correspondent Mark Scheerer

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Every Thursday night, Sue Mingus puts the Mingus Big Band through its paces at New York's Fez Under Time Cafe. They might start off with a short piece to warm up, like "Boogie Stomp Shuffle," or maybe it'll be a cut from their latest album, like "Tijuana Gift Shop."

This week, in addition to their regular Thursday gig, the band will be jetsetting across the country to the Monterey Jazz Festival, which unfolds over this weekend in northern California. The ensemble's performance is likely to be one of the festival's highlights.

Since 1991, this 14-piece band created by the widow of the great jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus, who died in 1979, has been keeping his legacy alive. Randy Brecker is just one of the better-known players.

Charles Mingus

"The number of musicians that play has grown into a pool now of over 150 musicians," Sue Mingus explains. "So we now have six or seven or eight musicians or more on each instrument that have learned this quite complex music."

"The Mingus Big Band workshop was something that Charles himself coined 40 years ago, because his music was difficult, there was never enough time to rehearse the musicians or enough money," she says. "And Charles called it a workshop so people could come and listen to music and not ask for their money back."

Recognized by many music critics as the greatest jazz composer in history, Charles Mingus died at the age of 56 after enduring a rare nerve disease that put him in a wheelchair. After his death, his wife and fellow musicians discovered hundreds of unperformed compositions in a trunk, and she set about showcasing them and Mingus' more familiar works with several ensembles, including the Mingus Big Band.

Sue Mingus

Two 'Meditations' to be performed

Among the pieces the ensemble plans to perform Friday in Monterey are a 1964 composition, "Meditations on Integration," inspired by the civil rights Freedom Riders, and another called "Meditations on a Pair of Wire-Cutters." Mingus played them at Monterey himself, 45 years ago.

"After that, we started a record company together called Charles Mingus Enterprises," his widow says, "and our first record release was 'Mingus at Monterey.'"

Visitors to the apartment where he lived in the months before his death can see his handwritten compositions.

"Charles always wanted a big band," his widow recalls. "Unfortunately, the economics and the time was such that he really didn't have the opportunity to have a big band regularly. If he could have written and composed for a band like that, week after week, it would have been a dream."

During his lifetime, such a dream was impossible to fulfill. But now the big band that bears his name, seven years on, continues its mission to keep Mingus among us.

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