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Mingus music in Robert Frank film

An up-coming authorized documentary entitled “Don’t Blink” about photographer Robert Frank (“The Americans”)  will include three Mingus compositions:   “Nostalgia in Times Square,”  “Haitian Fight Song,” and “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am.”

From the early ’90s on, Frank has been making his films and videos with the brilliant editor Laura Israel, who has helped him to keep things homemade and preserve the illuminating spark of first contact between camera and people/places. Don’t Blink is Israel’s like-minded portrait of her friend and collaborator, a lively rummage sale of images and sounds and recollected passages and unfathomable losses and friendships that leaves us a fast and fleeting imprint of the life of the Swiss-born man who reinvented himself the American way, and is still standing on ground of his own making at the age of 90.

The film will premiere at the New York Film Festival in October.

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Aids Research

One year ago, Sue Mingus participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in memory of her husband, Charles Mingus.  A stunt that once seemed silly, now scientists say it paid for a breakthrough. The ALS Association says the ice bucket challenge raised $115 million in six weeks, and many participants have become repeat donors.  Research led Johns Hopkins scientists focused on a protein called TDP-43 that in some circumstances is linked to cell death in the brain or spinal cord of patients.  The scientists found that inserting a custom-designed protein allowed cells to return to normal.  The research at Johns Hopkins on TDP-43 was already underway, but scientist Philip Wong says ice bucket money helped accelerate the work and allowed the team to conduct some high-risk, high-reward experiments that were critical to the outcome.

Read more:  New York Times and Science Magazine

Mingus Sings on NPR

Listen to Kevin Whitehead discuss “Mingus Sings” on NPR’s Fresh Air.  The original article appears here.


Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy Brings ‘Earnest Intensity’ To ‘Mingus Sings’

Full Transcription:


This is FRESH AIR. Off and on for two decades, trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy has played in New York’s Mingus Big Band, dedicated to the music of the late Charles Mingus. On the band’s new album, Lacy steps out front, singing a batch of Mingus songs. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it’s weirdly right.


KU-UMBA FRANK LACY: (Singing) I’ve seen a lot of pictures, most of the beauties of the world. From places I’ve traveled I still recall the quaint melody as I thrill. Painting my own…

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Composer Charles Mingus loved words as well as music. He was writing lyrics and using singers from the first and would sing or recite his own texts later. He also wrote jazz’s great autobiographical novel, the stylish, funny and disturbing “Beneath The Underdog.” Mingus always got to the heart of things. His lyrics, like his performances, might overflow with feeling. This is from the young Charles Mingus’s “Weird Nightmare.”


LACY: (Singing) You’re there to haunt me when you say she doesn’t want me. I’ve been hurt. Do you know what that means? Weird nightmare, take away the grief you’ve shared. Weird nightmare, mend a heart that’s torn and has paid the price of love a thousandfold. Bring me a love with a heart of gold.

WHITEHEAD: “Weird Nightmare,” first recorded in 1946, sung by Ku-umba Frank Lacy. It’s from the not-so-accurately titled album “Mingus Sings,” co-starring Lacy and the Mingus Big Band. Frank Lacy’s voice and blustery delivery can be comically gruff, but he gets the right earnest intensity. And he knows all the Mingusy inflections from playing in the band with a trombonist’s crack timing and attention to every note’s pitch and vibrato. Lacy has what Mingus prized, a strong, individual voice. This is “Dry Cleaner From Des Moines” with Joni Mitchell’s lyric about an Iowan’s hot streak in Vegas.


LACY: (Singing) I talked to a cat from Des Moines. He said he ran a cleaning plant. The cat was clanking with coin. Well, he must’ve had a genie in his lamp ’cause every time I dropped a dime, I blew it. He kept ringing bells, nothing to it. He got three oranges, three lemons, three cherries, three plums. I’m losing my taste for fruit. Watching the dry cleaner do it like Midas in a polyester suit. It’s all luck. It’s just luck. You get a little lucky and you make a little money.

WHITEHEAD: Wayne Escoffery on tenor saxophone. Charles Mingus’s melodies can move in odd ways, but they are oddly singable. The weird dips make voices sound good. The lyricist heard from on “Mingus Sings” also include Elvis Costello, who sang a couple of tongue twisters. And there’s a recitation penned by poet Langston Hughes. I admit, I prefer Mingus’s own words heard on four tunes here. That said, while drummer Doug Hammond was with Mingus in the ’70s, he penned a sharp lyric for the previously unheard tune “Dizzy Profile.” It’s about trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and how revolutionary ideas lose their sting over time and how to maybe fix that.


LACY: (Singing) There was once a time a friend of mine would play a melody and there would be a song. Man, he used to say a crazy friend but when he would play his trumpet sound, we all would gather round. Dizzy made the songs, bebop was his name. But misunderstanding came to turn around, it’s meeting them. What the music said to play about we always never knew until we grew the sound. So remember now that crazy sound that he will begin to understand a storyline again.

WHITEHEAD: Ku-umba Frank Lacy and the Mingus Big Band with trumpeters Jack Walrath, Alex Norris and Lew Soloff, who passed away not long after the recording. Mingus would teach musicians melodies by singing them. And his horns could sound eerily like his voice. This Mingus Big Band catches that vocalized quality. It doesn’t hurt one of their own is singing out front. There are good soloists new and old, including saxophonists Alex Foster and Craig Handy and a couple of newly unearthed compositions. The title “Mingus Sings” is a shameless cheat, but the music’s worthy of the Mingus brand.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of “Why Jazz?” He reviewed “Mingus Sings” featuring Ku-umba Frank Lacy and the Mingus Big Band on the Sunnyside label. On tomorrow’s show, after 16 years, Jon Stewart is stepping down as host of “The Daily Show.” What will America do without him? We’ll listen to excerpts of our interviews with him and with one of his executive producers. Hope you can join us.



Sue Mingus on Gunther Schuller


(Sue Mingus & Gunther Schuller at St. Bart’s Church, Manhattan, 2011)


I grieve along with everyone who loved Gunther Schuller.  Gunther was a friend for over thirty years.  He was a colossus in music, a force in nearly every genre from classical to jazz, a composer, conductor, arranger, educator, performer.  He was also an impassioned advocate for Charles Mingus music, from the first concert he produced with Mingus in the early Sixties, to his editing and conducting of Mingus’s three-hour masterwork “Epitaph” after his death, to his major participation in the annual Mingus High School  Competition at Manhattan School of Music.  From my own perspective no one did more to elevate and promote Mingus besides Charles Mingus himself.

He was available whenever you needed him, he never said no.  If you called he stayed on the phone whatever he might have been doing— and he was always doing something:  preparing to conduct a concert, writing a string quartet, organizing notes for a class he was teaching.  I once took a photograph of Gunther sound asleep on a plane, his head resting on music scores that were spread out on the fold-out table in front of his seat.  My grandfather used to say if you wanted something done, take it to a busy man. Gunther was the embodiment of that saying.

Missing Gunther has just begun. We held a tribute last week at the club where the Mingus Big Band has a weekly residency. We performed arrangements Gunther made for the band. I imagine we will go on performing them for a long while.


Sue Mingus