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A Love Story Between Two Opposites: Charles Mingus and Sue Graham Mingus

Charles Mingus and Sue Mingus photo by Sy Johnson.jpg
Sy Johnson (Mingus Archives)
Charles and Sue Mingus in their apartment at Manhattan Plaza, NYC

Friday, April 22 would have been Charles Mingus’ 100th birthday. His virtuosity as a bassist and his innovative and emotionally charged compositions place him in a class with Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk as one of the greatest composers that jazz has produced.

Mingus was an artist whose fortunes had extreme peaks and valleys. His personality was complex. There were occasionally violent outbursts that gave him a certain notoriety. He was never afraid to speak his mind and he didn’t shy away from making provocative political statements with his music. Sometimes, his theatrical nature and larger-than-life persona distracted from his brilliance and creativity as a musician.

To mark Mingus’ centennial, we are broadcasting an interview with his widow, Sue Graham Mingus. For decades, she worked tirelessly to keep Mingus’ musical legacy alive, running the Mingus Big Band, the Mingus Orchestra and Mingus Legacy through a company called Jazz Workshop, Inc. She’s now 92 years old and her son, Robert Ungaro runs the organization. When we spoke in 2003, she had just published a memoir about her marriage to Charles Mingus called Tonight at Noon.

Her account is a fascinating and moving tribute to a misunderstood artist. The first half of the interview is the story of their courtship. The second part deals with Mingus’ fight with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which ultimately took his life on January 5, 1979.

This interview was recorded in the studios of WCVE-FM in Richmond, VA and is being used with the permission of VPM.


PETER SOLOMON: You and Charles Mingus came from very different backgrounds. Can you describe where you were each coming from because You are described as a romance between American opposites on your cover.

SUE GRAHAM MINGUS: Well, I came from a very protected environment, Middle West, away from coastal disturbances on the banks Lake Michigan. I went to girl schools, girls college all my life. My parents, my mother had grown up in a Roman Catholic convent, she'd wanted to be a nun. My father was equally a loner, a sort of mathematical genius and my mother had been a harpist. My father wanted to be an opera singer. I grew up with classical music, I played the piano, I played recitals. I knew nothing about jazz. And of course, Charles, his background was very different. He grew up in Watts, not privileged, a man of enormous gifts unrecognized by most at the time, black and white society, and it was an uphill battle. They're very different from the way I grew up. Nonetheless, he was very familiar to me in many ways reminded me a lot of my father, as I write about in the book as different as they may have been, there were there were a lot of similarities, and so forth.

SOLOMON: Now, where were you working when you met Charles Mingus?

MINGUS: Where was I working at the time? I was in a movie, a Robert Frank movie and Robert wanted a jazz soundtrack for the movie and he wanted Ornette Coleman to write a soundtrack and I started going out with the director and the producer and people connected to the film, to listen to jazz, about which I knew nothing. And we went to the Five Spot. It was the heyday of jazz, it was the mid 60s. It was a time when Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus could play at a place like the Five Spot for six months at a time and keep people coming. Unlike today where you're lucky if you get a week, weeks gig somewhere. Those were the hay days. We had gone to see Dizzy Gillespie earlier and then we had ended up at the Five Spot around midnight. And it was intermission, I saw this man sitting at a table for four. In the middle of all the frenzy of a late Saturday night. Jazz Club, absolutely focused on this giant beef bone. Like a holy man meditating on a chakra, he was completely oblivious to the noise around him. And I was riveted by his concentration. I had no idea who he was. I didn't know he was the person that we had come to here or that would be performing. But I felt a connection, you know, who can explain these things? And he eventually came over to the bar to ask for a bottle of wine that I think he brought from home and sat next to where I was sitting. So I said to him, “Have you seen Ornette Coleman?” Which was the person that you know, we were looking for? And he said “the Calypso player?” And of course I had no idea where what kind of irony or references he was making. And he said “Are you his old lady?” and I said “His mother?” And he said “No, you know, his his lady, his woman?” I mean, it was worlds in collision from the very beginning. It was from you know, I had no idea what he was talking about. But in any case, eventually, after a rather extended conversation, he said he would play something for me at the piano. And although he was playing bass at the time, Charles often and always played the piano, loved the piano and made that piano album. But that was the beginning i He was looking for someone to run a mail order record company, I was looking for a job and I started off working with Mingus.

SOLOMON: Now you guys had a rather unusual courtship to you talked about him moving across the street from you. Can you talk about that?

MINGUS: We moved in together after about eight years of going around together. And most of the arguments were about Charles wanting love with an address, as he said, and I wanted my independence. I had come out of a former marriage. I had two children. I was not about to jump into another serious relationship or marriage at that point. And Charles found an apartment, one of many things that he did, but he found an apartment directly across the street from me and started these incredible light shows from the windows of his apartment. This was in the 60s when light shows the psychedelic light shows – We would be gathered up in Millbrook in connection with Tim Leary and, and the whole psychedelic culture which was beginning to envelop us, and jazz clubs had flickering lights and the Fillmore East had their light shows downtown and so forth. But nothing was quite like this extraordinary show that was coming out of Charles's Windows. He had gone down to the hardware store brought all kinds of contraptions and wires and lights and what do you call them things that regulate the speed and the time and he created as original a show, a visual show as he did with his music and he began to get letters in his mailbox from people on the block saying, “Dear Mr. Light Man, your show is fabulous” or “Magician, you're a groove.” You know, this was the 60s that was the terminology. And he I have to say Charles came up with one imaginative thing after another he would send an extraordinary gifts I got one gigantic, beautiful antique mirror that said, look at yourself for company you can't get along with anyone else. Or a single teacup, a solitary teacup and a solitary saucer. You know, where the message was clear.

SOLOMON: You had another story in there that was pretty interesting about Timothy Leary and some frogs and him and your son Roberto going out gigging.

MINGUS: The weekend at Tim Leary’s fed into the idea of the light show that Charles would ultimately invent across the street. We had gone up to Millbrook, Charles and my son went frog gigging together and intended to eat these frogs for dinner. But most of the people that were assembled up in Millbrook were vegetarians and they were horrified at the thought of eating the frogs and Tim Leary decided to stage a show he had been experimenting with these strobe lights. And they set free though we were at the Hitchcock mansion, magnificent porch that circled the mansion and we were all assembled on the porch about 9:30 at night, and with someone or some assistant professor from Harvard, Tim had been teaching at Harvard left his position there to explore the psychedelic effects of psilocybin or acid. And while this professor was holding the strobe lights, Tim release these bucketfuls of frogs, which bounded across the gigantic lawn in front of the match and into the night blinking off and on, and finally disappearing these flickering lit animals racing into the night it was quite an extraordinary show. And it was after that, that Charles started his own light show in Manhattan in an apartment across the street from where I live.

SOLOMON: Mingus was of course famous for his temper and his kind of theatricality. It was like a tool for him to deal with people sometimes…

MINGUS: Charles used anger as a device. Also, certainly, he had many reasons to be angry with the wrong color skin and a country that didn't recognize his gifts. But he also was crazy like a fox many times and used anger as well. He called it creative anger, where, for example, one time he went to a record company to sign a contract with a company, small company and he had a lot of trouble with and he took along his drummer who on cue, pulled out this lawn nice look meaningfully at the record executive and then proceeded to clean his nails. And Charles came up with wonderful scenarios like that he wants went up to Columbia Records dressed in a safari suit and had hard hat and a rifle to the accounting department and things happen very speedily after that.

SOLOMON: Now, of course, there's a harrowing fight with Lou Gehrig's disease. Can you talk about that illness and maybe a little bit about its progression and your search to try to end it in Mexico and things like that?

MINGUS: When we found out that Charles had Lou Gehrig's disease, of course, there's nothing really that you can do. It's a nerve disease. They had no idea what the cause was, they still don't and there was no cure for it. Ultimately, we went to Mexico to consult with witches and healers and sorcerers. We had been at the White House at a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival. Word from the top that America's music mattered and we ended up going there. Charles was already paralyzed in a wheelchair. And we ran into Gerry Mulligan at this picnic on the lawn who had just returned from Mexico. He had actually filled in for a tour that Charles was supposed to do of South America. And then we found out of course, he had this disease and he could no longer perform. So I call Lionel Hampton and Gerry Mulligan and maybe one other person to fill in and play the kind of sets Charles was supposed to play. So we ran into Gerry at the White House and he said he come to Mexico and a friend of his with Charles's incurable disease was being cured. So, three days later, we were on a plane to Mexico, because Mexico offered hope. And there was another thing that happened on the White House lawn, which was quite astonishing. The impresario George Wein announced Charles's presence, and everyone rose to their feet and Jimmy Carter came running across the lawn and embrace Charles put his arms around him, as Charles sat paralyzed in the wheelchair, and then George Wien. Maybe he thought if anyone could beat the rap or cause a miracle, it would be Charles. But he said, Charlie Mingus stand up and take a bow. And of course, it was the thing Charles would have most loved to, to have done. But he burst into tears. Here he had the President of the United States on one side of his wheelchair and our nurse and my son on the other. And it was one of those moments, which I saw in photographs later on a long time later, but it was part of the spur, you know, when there's no longer hope you turn to magic. And we ended up going to Mexico, which was the best thing we could have done. We had a time of great vitality, doing all these different cures, going to the tops of mountains and the bottoms of valleys and eating our way to Mexico, Charles's appetites never waned. Paralyzed, and in a chair he had more energy than 50 people running around the block. He ruled our household. He always had a great sense of irony as well, which he needed in this culture. But he had a great sense of humor. And this is what originally I wanted to write about was were these months in Mexico, focusing on this other side of Charles that did not make the newspapers because it's the angry, the big scenes that are more newsworthy and more interesting to write about the side of Charles that was so brave and full of grace and wit and humor that came to the fore. And Mexico was something that I really wanted to write about. And I was going to call it Portrait of the Artist as a Dying Man. And then as time went by, and people began to say, well, but who are you? Who's this voice that's writing? What's your history? How did you meet Charles Mingus, and so forth? So then I had to dig into my own life, and it became a much more personal account than I had ever imagined and much harder to write.

SOLOMON: I guess, is that why it took, I guess, since 1979, to do this, or when did you start putting this together?

MINGUS: I kept notes, you know, it's a way to hang on, it's a way to double your experience. I've always kept notes throughout my life. I've never written a book before, but I love language, I love vocabulary. It's very terrifying and very fearsome. Because there's this great need to get it right. It finally came to me, I guess the last two or three years, I really settled down and worked on this book, and tried to, as I say, examine, you know, work my way through the layers of my own experience in my own past, and try to understand how things were in this relationship, which is what the book really turned into.

SOLOMON: Can you explain why Charles chose to have his ashes released into the Ganges?

MINGUS: Well, he believed in reincarnation, he did not want a jazz funeral. He'd become disgusted with Jazz funderals and was he felt that they were self-serving for other musicians that everyone was fighting over who was going to play first. And the person that was being honored and remembered was sort of not in the picture at all. And he'd become disenchanted with jazz funerals. That might have been one aspect of it. The others I think he didn't want the gangsters and the club owners and all the people he might have confronted throughout his life to mess with his very personal quiet spiritual passage from one life to the next. As I say he believed in reincarnation and he liked the Hindu religion in the sense that incorporated all religions are all the prophets who used to shout their names from the bandstand, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus Christ, all the prophets, he'd say, and as he used all kinds of music in his composition, he liked the fact that the Hindu religion incorporated all the religions that it was democratic, so to speak. And there was a time when he went to the temples occasionally. I mean, he really was his own temple I he didn't particularly attend church, but he had his own very spiritual connection, and wanted his ashes scattered in the Ganges.

Peter Solomon is WESM's Music Director and host of Morning Jazz Unlimited, weekdays from 9 am to noon on WESM. He joined Delmarva Public Media in August 2021 after 22 years as a jazz host for an NPR affiliate in Richmond, Virginia.