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Mingus Mingus Mingus (and Some Pepper too)

MingusThe new Charles Mingus/Eric Dolphy release from Blue Note, Cornell 1964, arrived at the station last week. Along with the recent reissue of the little-known 1970 Complete America Session and last year’s ragged but vital At UCLA 1965 (aka Music Written for Monterey, 1965 Not Heard…played in its entirety), it’s been a good run lately for Mingus fans. The Monterey and America dates give us glimpses of Mingus from a period when he all but vanished from the discographical record; after the passion of the 1964 performances that included saxophonists Eric Dolphy and Clifford Jordan, Mingus seemed to nearly lose his way as a musician, and the liner notes for the America label session (recorded in Paris) trumpet it, with some validity, as the beginning of the bassist’s comeback in the 1970s.

The March 1964 Cornell concert is a surprise to just about everybody except for Mingus’ widow Sue and a handful of others (details of the tapes’ troubled history in the New York Times piece below). It may not be quite as historically significant as the Parker-Gillespie Town Hall date and the Monk-Coltrane Voice of America recording (such gems seem to be turning up at a roughly annual pace, which is jake with me), but it’s still revelatory. This sounds like a Mingus group having fun… not a word one normally associates with Mingus units, after imbibing the numerous narratives of stage tantrums, smashed instruments, punch-staggered sidemen, etc. But the raucous, biting laughter at the heart of tunes such as the epic 29-minute version of “Fables of Faubus” (and listen to what Jaki Byard does with his interpolations of “Yankee Doodle” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), the runaway creativity of “Take the A Train,” and the sheer exuberance of “Jitterbug Waltz” (along with a throwaway of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”) signify good times, good times for this ensemble on this particular occasion. Was this the Mingus band? I love the Workshop groups of the 1950s, I’m a fan of the late Pullen-Adams incarnation, but it’s tough to top the lineup of Dolphy, Jordan, Jaki Byard, Dannie Richmond, and Johnny Coles, who missed a number of dates on the ’64 tour due to health problems. (He’s present at the Cornell performance.) In any case, do believe the hype.

From this past Sunday, an article about Sue Mingus and Laurie Pepper, who has also released concert performances by her deceased jazz-legend husband (Art Pepper); I’m hoping to hear those soon as well.

Still Married to the Music

by Fred Kaplan, NY Times

IT’S a happy accident that two of the most self-absorbed legends in the history of jazz — the bassist Charles Mingus and the alto saxophonist Art Pepper — married women who wound up equally absorbed in the preservation of their legacies. The men have been dead now for a quarter-century, yet their widows, Sue Graham Mingus and Laurie Pepper, keep unveiling major discoveries.

Their latest finds are three previously unreleased live recordings. “Cornell 1964” (Blue Note) captures Mingus’s most adventurous sextet (including Eric Dolphy on reeds and Jaki Byard on piano) playing at Cornell University in a concert that, until now, no jazz historian even knew about. Volumes 1 and 2 of “Unreleased Art” (Widow’s Taste) feature Pepper’s most lyrical quartet, the first volume at a concert in Abashiri, Japan, in 1981, the second at the 1982 Kool Jazz Festival in Washington, which was his final performance.

All three albums capture the musicians at mesmerizing peaks: Mingus plucking his bass with ferocious merriment, Pepper blowing blues and ballads with a shivering intensity, as if each song recounted his own dreams and disappointments. “I’ve been itching to get the Cornell concert out for years,” Ms. Mingus said. “There’s more tapes where that came from, and I plan to release them soon too.”

Artists’ widows have long been keepers of the flame. John Coltrane’s final works were assiduously controlled by his wife, Alice (who died this year). Jackson Pollock’s posthumous image was heavily shaped by his wife, the artist Lee Krasner. Ernest Hemingway’s widow, Mary, released unfinished works and sued those who tried to publish others. But few widows have devoted themselves as persistently as Ms. Mingus and Ms. Pepper.

“It takes an obsessive personality to do this, and that’s what I am,” Ms. Pepper said with a laugh. Ms. Mingus admits to a passion for “the value of excess, of being blinded by something that matters.”

Sue Graham was a model, indie-film actress and Italian translator when a friend took her to see Mingus play at the Five Spot, a Bowery jazz club, in July 1964 (a few months after the Cornell concert). “I knew nothing about jazz at the time,” she said, sitting in the Midtown apartment that she and Mingus shared toward the end of his life. His piano (which she plays) takes up much of the living room. His bass leans in a corner. Framed sheets of his handwritten scores adorn several walls.

Through most of their 15 years together she published an alternative newspaper and only occasionally got involved in his career. That changed in 1979, after Mingus died of Lou Gehrig’s disease at 56. “Somebody was planning a Mingus tribute concert at Carnegie Hall,” she recalled. “I put together a band called Mingus Dynasty by looking on the back of his albums and calling people who had played on them. I had no idea what I was doing.”

The group went over well, and she took it on the road. She expanded it to the 14-piece Mingus Big Band, which the manager of Fez — a club in the basement of Time Cafe in Greenwich Village — hired to play every Tuesday night. When Fez closed, she moved the band uptown to Iridium, where it still alternates with a revamped 7-piece Mingus Dynasty and a 10-piece Mingus Orchestra, all devoted to playing her husband’s compositions.

Ms. Mingus commissions arrangements, produces the bands’ CDs (10 so far), manages their tours, picks the musicians for each gig (rotating among 100, many of whom were in grade school when Mingus lived) and often selects which songs they play.

It took her a while to grow into her part. During an early road trip a few months after Mingus died, she overheard band members making fun of her inexperience. “It hurt, but I was an outsider,” she said. “I’m not a jazz musician, yet here I was telling seasoned jazz musicians things like, ‘Please make your solo shorter.’ But I soon realized that I did have one power — I paid the checks. And there was the power of Charles’s music, which has an openness that forces musicians to free themselves, and they appreciated that.”

The Cornell tapes were discovered 20 years ago by Ed Michel, then a producer at Fantasy Records, who while putting together a 12-CD box set of Mingus recordings from the 1950s came across the reels in the Fantasy vaults. He urged Ralph Kaffel, Fantasy’s president at the time, to release the tapes as a separate CD. “I said: ‘This is the real deal. There’s nothing better,’ ” Mr. Michel recalled in a phone interview. “But Ralph waved me off.”

Mr. Kaffel, reached by phone in California, explained, “I’d been trying unsuccessfully to get Sue to sell me the rights to the tapes of a Mingus concert at Monterey, so I didn’t want to waste my time trying again with the Cornell tapes.”

Mr. Michel sent the tapes to Ms. Mingus. At the time she was busy producing the concert tour for “Epitaph,” a 500-page Mingus jazz symphony that had recently been unearthed, so she stored them with Nesuhi Ertegun, an old friend and a top executive at Atlantic Records. He died soon after, and the tapes couldn’t be found. After a frantic search, an assistant of Mr. Ertegun’s located them in a mislabeled box. Then Ms. Mingus lost them again, found them again, and finally arranged for Blue Note to release them as a two-CD set to coincide with what would have been Mingus’s 85th birthday.

“It’s all been serendipitous,” she said. “Not just the tapes but everything that’s happened. Either that or it’s all been orchestrated by Charles from the beyond.” She laughed. “He was prescient. He’d say he was receiving messages from the spheres, that the music was waiting for his fingers when he went to the piano.”

Now 77, Ms. Mingus is gradually turning over direction of the bands to selected musicians. Recently she signed with Ted Kurland Associates, a major booking firm, to take control of their tours. “The shame is, you finally learn everything, then you die,” she said with a shrug. “The important thing is, if I walked away today, all of this would survive.”

Laurie Miller grew up listening to her uncle’s collection of jazz records. She briefly studied jazz singing at Westlake College (she dropped out, she said, after realizing she wasn’t the next Billie Holiday) and of course had heard of Art Pepper, who in the early 1950s consistently placed second to Charlie Parker in the polls for best alto saxophonist.

She was a newspaper photographer when they met in 1969 at Synanon, the drug treatment center in Santa Monica, Calif. She had checked in to get off pills and alcohol; he entered to avoid getting sent back to San Quentin prison, where he had spent years locked up on drug charges. While at Synanon, Pepper entertained her with wild stories about his life.

“I became obsessed with the idea of turning these stories into a book,” Ms. Pepper recalled over brunch at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant during a recent visit from her home in Los Angeles. “At the time he had no career. I had no interest in helping him restart one.”

They left Synanon and moved in together in 1972. For the next several years she cajoled him into speaking into her tape recorder and then pieced together his stories. The result was the harrowing autobiography “Straight Life,” published in 1979. During the process, in 1976, they were married, and Pepper returned to playing jazz after a 15-year absence.

“Only then did I get caught up in the music,” Ms. Pepper said. “Every time he did a gig, I would sit there in the audience or at the sound board and say, ‘This is why I’m doing this.’ The glory of the music was overwhelming. It was like a religious experience. I looked at the band on the stage, these guys that I knew, and realized they’d become gods.”

Pepper remained an unrepentant addict, no longer shooting heroin but snorting cocaine on top of his methadone. Yet for the last six years of his life he toured almost constantly and recorded more than 40 albums. His wife booked the gigs, negotiated contracts, handled the money and went with him everywhere. “Art couldn’t organize anything except a drug buy,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Even that he did awkwardly.”

At one point he made her buy a tape-recorder and told her, “Record me every chance you get, so you’ll have something after I’m gone.” He died in 1982 — like Mingus at 56 — from liver disease and a slew of other ailments.

“After Art died, I was completely broke,” Ms. Pepper said. She published his music, produced a major box set of reissues, sold some of the tapes she had made — and made a living.)

Last fall, at 66, she started her own label, Widow’s Taste, after an editor from Travel & Leisure magazine called. He was writing an article about Abashiri and had heard that Pepper once played there. “Yes,” she replied, “I’m about to release a recording of that concert.” In fact she wasn’t. “At least I wasn’t until that moment,” she recalled, laughing. “But I figured if I did, that magazine would give it good publicity.”

She never heard from the editor again but went ahead with the CD. She followed up with the Washington concert — she obtained those tapes from Voice of America, which had recorded it — and plans to release many more from her vast archive.

“It sounds kind of woo-woo,” Ms. Pepper said, “but there’s a part of me that’s forever connected to Art. He’s my muse. He made me feel like somebody, and he still does.”

Photos and more online here.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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