Home Jazz Sue Mingus, who championed her husband’s jazz legacy, dies at 92

Sue Mingus, who championed her husband’s jazz legacy, dies at 92


Sue Mingus, who founded jazz ensembles, published music books and produced Grammy-nominated albums as part of a determined four-decade campaign to promote the legacy of her late husband, the brilliant and mercurial composer , bandleader and double bass virtuoso Charles Mingus, died September 24 in a Manhattan hospital. She was 92 years old.

His death was confirmed by his son, Roberto Ungaro, who said his health was declining but did not give a specific cause. She died 15 years to the day after her brother Richard A. Graham, founder of the National Organization for Women and inaugural member of the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

A former Midwestern debutante who rebelled against her conventional upbringing — her friends included poet Allen Ginsberg as well as literary critic Harold Bloom — Ms Mingus has often downplayed the impact of her years defending the music and image of her husband. “Charles’ music is Charles’s music,” she told the Washington Post in 1999, two decades after she died of a heart attack at age 56. “Maybe I sped the process up,” she continued, referring to a composer whose songs were recorded. by artists such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Keith Richards, “but that’s it”.

Yet, for many jazz historians and musicians, she played a crucial role in shaping her husband’s legacy, whose music combined traditional blues and gospel with complex harmonies, free melodies and abiding love. collective improvisation. His popularity rose and fell during his lifetime as he battled depression, alienated audiences and collaborators with his tantrums, and battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“If it weren’t for Sue Mingus, her music wouldn’t be as revered as it is today,” journalist and critic Nat Hentoff told the Post. “What she did was keep Mingus’ music alive, literally.”

As Mrs. Mingus recounted, she knew next to nothing about jazz when she met her husband in 1964 when she first saw him in concert. She starred in an underground film directed by Robert Frank, “OK End Here”, which was to feature a soundtrack by saxophonist Ornette Coleman. A friend working on the film decided to introduce her to the city’s jazz scene and brought her to the Five Spot in Lower Manhattan, where she sat at the bar during intermission and sipped a gin and tonic while watching Mingus eat alone at his table, “as intense and private as a holy man meditating on his chakra”.

“I loved him immediately,” she wrote in “Tonight at Noon: A Love Story” (2002), a memoir about their relationship. “I liked his solitude in the tumultuous room, his concentration on the oversized beef bone at hand.”

When Mingus came for a bottle of wine, she asked him if he had seen Coleman, then explained that the musician was writing music for a movie she was in. “Are you in a movie?” Charles answered with surprise. “With those teeth?”

They quickly struck up a relationship. After a few years, she recalls, they were “married” by Ginsberg, a Buddhist who presided over an impromptu ceremony while chanting to the couple for over an hour. They were legally married in 1975 – it was Charles’s fourth marriage and Ms Mingus’s second – this time by a justice of the peace.

By this time, Charles had begun contributing to Changes, a New York arts magazine founded by Ms Mingus, as she booked her tours and helped her music publishing company. After his death in 1979, she traveled to India and, at his request, scattered his ashes in the Ganges. When a tribute concert was held in his honor later that year, she assembled a band called Mingus Dynasty, made up of musicians who had played with him during his lifetime, including drummer Dannie Richmond and trombonist Jimmy Knepper.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” she told The New York Times in 2007, recalling that she pieced the set together by calling musicians credited on the back of her albums. The group continued to perform at jazz festivals across the country and served as a model for later ensembles formed by Ms. Mingus, including the 10-piece Mingus Orchestra.

In collaboration with musicologist Andrew Homzy and composer and conductor Gunther Schuller, she produced the 1989 Lincoln Center premiere of Charles’s monumental composition “Epitaph”, using a 500-page, 15-book score that has was located and assembled after his death. Musicians from the Mingus dynasty and the “Epitaph” orchestra were later chosen for the Mingus Big Band, a 14-piece ensemble she created to ensure her music was regularly performed.

To Ms Mingus’ surprise, the band became a New York institution, initially playing weekly gigs at the Fez Under Time Cafe, a nightclub where seats were often taken by people in their twenties born after Charles’s death. . “There’s really no explanation for the popularity,” she told The Times in 1994, three years after forming the band. “But I think Charles would be tickled.”

Much like her husband, Mrs. Mingus could be petulant towards the band’s musicians, sometimes teasing them for playing too loudly or playing solo for too long. But in general, “she treated her musicians like her extended family,” her son said in a phone interview, and drew praise from music critics for the lineups she put together and the albums she put together. has produced, including the Grammy-winning Mingus Big Band’s “Live.” at Jazz Standard” (2010).

“When someone like Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw dies and a sideman takes over the band, it’s called a ghost band because it’s just not the same,” Hentoff told the Post in 1999. “But with the Mingus Big Band – and I’m not exaggerating – you can feel Mingus. It’s because of Sue. She knows which musicians to choose, she knows who understands the music.

The eldest of three children, she was born Sue Graham in Chicago on April 2, 1930. She grew up in Milwaukee, where her parents filled the house with classical music; his mother, a housewife, played the harp and his father dreamed of becoming an opera singer before working as a mathematician and engineer.

Ms Mingus was educated in all-girls schools, and after graduating from Smith College in 1952, she moved to Paris to work as a journalist. She eventually landed a job in Rome at Pan Am’s inflight magazine and married an Italian sculptor, Alberto Ungaro, before returning to New York with her husband in 1958. They separated after a few years.

After Charles Mingus’ death, Mrs. Mingus helped organize his papers and donated his archives to the Library of Congress. She has also published books including “Charles Mingus: More Than a Fake Book” (1991), which included 55 of her original scores; produced a documentary, “Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog” (1998); and campaigned against bootleggers who released pirated recordings of her husband’s concerts. At times, she stole counterfeit albums from record stores, eventually starting her own music company, Revenge Records, to reissue recordings of her concerts.

Ms Mingus started a nonprofit, Let My Children Hear Music, to promote her educational efforts, which have grown to include an annual festival and high school jazz competition. This year, coinciding with the centennial of Mingus’s birth, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him its 2023 AB Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy.

Survivors include two children from his first marriage, Robert and Susanna Ungaro; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her son described her as ‘a ball of fire’ who ‘didn’t care what other people thought’, recalling that for a time Mrs Mingus spent her summers in the Hamptons on an old houseboat, who sank in a hurricane, and drove to the beach “with a clam rake sticking out of the sunroof” of her Bentley automobile, which she bought used.

Ms Mingus continued to work until five years ago, although she began handing over control of her husband’s tribute bands in the late 1970s.

“The shame is that you finally learn everything and then you die,” she told The Times in 2007. Yet she added: “The important thing is that if I walked away today, all of this would survive .”