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One-Man Band

TONIGHT AT NOON: A Love Story, By Sue Graham Mingus, Pantheon: 288 pp., $24

September 15, 2002|ARAM SAROYAN | Aram Saroyan is the author of "Artists in Trouble: New Stories," "Starting Out in the Sixties: Selected Essays" and "Rancho Mirage: An American Tragedy of Manners, Madness and Murder."

In 1979, the last year of his life, Charles Mingus was dismayed when a radio commentator, during a rebroadcast of a Mingus concert in New Orleans, praised an early composition of his but got its musical lineage wrong. "I was inspired by Duke Ellington, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok," he said. "It had nothing to do with [jazz bassist] Oscar Pettiford."

Ellington was his lifelong idol, and because Mingus also composed for the full orchestral palette, he is Ellington's truest successor. His only rival, Thelonious Monk, was perfectly at home with the small ensemble (although his music is periodically the subject of successful orchestral settings).

I remember seeing Mingus one night at Birdland during the 1960s. He stood with his bass to the left on a bandstand that included reeds, horns and a rhythm section, and though his players had scores, Mingus would spontaneously call on soloists or indicate whole sections for particular emphasis or unrehearsed interludes. It was as if he was playing his bass and his orchestra simultaneously.

His body of work is among the most emotionally protean with one of the most varied and informed musical pedigrees in American history. In addition to the influences he names above, his compositions embrace gospel, blues, R&B, salsa and Afro-Cuban strains--often in boldly articulated "movements." Works such as "Fables of Faubus," "Self Portrait in Three Colors," "Reincarnation of a Lovebird" and "Sue's Changes" are American classics.

When the New Thing in jazz came along in the 1960s, Mingus readily integrated free jazz intervals into the body of his compositions. But we learn in "Tonight at Noon: A Love Story," his widow Sue Graham Mingus' telling and moving memoir, that he considered musicians playing exclusively free jazz to be at best incomplete. "You don't do anything all the time," he said.

Sue Mingus reports a conversation between her husband and Ellington apropos the New Jazz, then at its height, quoting from a piece Mingus wrote: " 'Duke, why don't you, me and Dizzy [Gillespie] and Clark Terry and Thad Jones get together and make an avant-garde record?' Duke's reply was very quick: 'Why should we go back that far? Let's not take music back that far, Mingus. Why not just make a modern record?' "

Mingus died at 56 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Even so, his body of work is the second largest in jazz, exceeded only by Ellington's, and includes major compositions still to be recorded.

Like his music, Mingus' life was multifaceted and inclusive, running the gamut from a childhood and adolescence in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles to concerts in the capitals of Europe and the Americas; there were friendships with, among others, Norman Mailer and Joni Mitchell, who, late in his life, became a collaborator. Sue Mingus records her husband's first meeting with Mitchell, which occurred when he was already dying:

"They were an unlikely couple, Joni and Charles: Joni, a singer who didn't read music, who refused to risk her gifts or her intuition by submitting them to formal study. And Charles, who, as a teenager in Los Angeles, studied composition and music theory with the legendary Lloyd Reese and mastered the classical bass with Herman Rheinshagen, the retired principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic. Joni's musical talents fell into place on their own, a natural outgrowth of her poetry.

" 'You're the hillbilly singer,' Charles ... said to her straight-faced from his wheelchair when she first walked into our living room. She stopped dead at the entrance and stared at him without speaking. He'd caught her off guard. She was standing beside Don Alias, tall, black, and handsome, the jazz percussionist who was living with her then. She was taller than I had imagined and looked surprisingly serious. Suddenly she relaxed. She looked at Charles slyly and burst out laughing. They liked each other from the start."

In the fall of 1964, at the Manhattan funeral of my boyhood friend Steve Reichman, who had died in Europe over his summer break from NYU, I was surprised and moved when it was announced that Charles Mingus, unseen behind the proscenium curtain, would play a solo bass eulogy. The austerely beautiful solo, and Mingus' generosity to the family of his young fan, was a moving gesture at the abrupt end of a promising life. Earlier that same year, Sue Graham had been introduced to Mingus at the Five Spot, the Greenwich Village jazz club where he was performing. She was married to an Italian artist at the time and was the mother of a young son and daughter.

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