Sue Mingus, promoter of her husband's musical legacy, dies at 92

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Sue Mingus, promoter of her husband's musical legacy, dies at 92
An undated photo provided by Sy Johnson shows Sue Mingus with her husband, the jazz bassist Charles Mingus, at their home in the Manhattan Plaza complex in New York in 1978. Mingus, whose impassioned promotion of her husband’s work after his death in 1979 helped secure his legacy as one of the 20th century’s greatest musical minds, died on Sept. 24, 2022, in New York. She was 92. Sy Johnson/Mingus Archives via The New York Times

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Sue Mingus, the wife of the jazz bassist, composer and bandleader Charles Mingus, whose impassioned promotion of his work after his death in 1979 helped secure his legacy as one of the 20th century’s greatest musical minds, died Saturday in Manhattan. She was 92.

Her son, Roberto Ungaro, confirmed her death, at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Though Charles Mingus’ reputation as a brilliant if volatile performer was secure by the time he died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at 56, Sue Mingus made sure he was also elevated to the pantheon of great jazz composers, alongside the likes of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.

She organized three bands, each with different strengths, to wrestle with the more than 300 compositions he left behind, including his posthumously discovered masterpiece, the two-hour orchestral work “Epitaph.” He had despaired of seeing it performed in his lifetime, hence its title, but Mingus managed to bring the piece to the stage in a landmark performance at Lincoln Center in 1989.

Charles Mingus had exacting ideas about how each note from each member of his band should sound. But his wife saw that he had left his compositions supple and wide open to interpretation, allowing generations of musicians to return to them again and again. What resulted was a fresh, alluring texture rarely found in legacy bands playing the music of Ellington, Glenn Miller and others.

“None of those leaders posthumously had the advantage of a Sue Mingus,” the jazz critic and journalist Nat Hentoff, a close friend of the Minguses, told The Boston Globe in 2004. “She’s got players who really dig into that music and remember that Mingus used to say, ‘You can’t play your own licks. I want you to play the music, but be yourself.’”

Charles and Sue made an unlikely couple: He was a temperamental Black bohemian raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles; she was a white Midwestern former debutante. And yet they clicked almost immediately after a chance encounter in 1964 at the Five Spot, a club in Lower Manhattan.

He was playing his regular gig; she was there to soak in the city’s jazz scene, having recently appeared in “OK End Here,” a short film by the photographer Robert Frank with a score by the saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

“My life had been one of order and balance, founded on grammar and taste and impeccable manners,” Sue Mingus wrote in “Tonight at Noon: A Love Story” (2002), her memoir of their relationship. “And yet something about the man across the room seemed oddly familiar, like someone I already knew.”

By the end of the 1960s they were more than lovers: She was his manager, his agent, his confidante and emotional support system. She booked his shows, arranged grants and teaching positions, and helped keep him levelheaded and relatively clean of the prescription drugs and alcohol that had disrupted his earlier career.

And when, in the mid-1970s, he received his ALS diagnosis, she hunted down experimental surgeries. They were in Mexico for one such treatment when he died; following his wishes, she spread his ashes in the Ganges River in India.

It was after his death that Mingus showed the true strength of her commitment. She arranged for a two-day festival of Mingus’ music at Carnegie Hall, and soon afterward oversaw the creation of Mingus Dynasty, a seven-piece band that played both old Mingus standards and pieces he never brought to life, often arranged by Mingus’ longtime collaborator Sy Johnson, who died in July.

Mingus had her husband’s compositions cataloged and donated to the Library of Congress, one of the largest gifts ever of a Black musician’s work. When one of the catalogers found the 200-page, 15-pound score for “Epitaph,” she wrangled 31 musicians to perform it, under the direction of the composer and conductor Gunther Schuller.

That concert, a decade after Charles Mingus died, revived interest in his music and led to the creation of two more repertory bands.

In any given week in New York, a jazz fan might head to the Fez, a basement club on Lafayette Street, to hear the Mingus Big Band, then shuffle over to the City Hall Restaurant in TriBeCa to catch the Mingus Orchestra, which put more focus on composition and featured exotic instruments like bassoon and French horn. In between, one could pick up any number of recordings released under her record labels, Revenge and Sue Mingus Music.

Revenge, which released music previously available only on bootleg recordings, demonstrated just how dedicated Mingus was to her husband’s legacy.

By the late 1980s she had grown exasperated with the high volume of bootleg recordings of Mingus concerts. She got in the habit of taking as many as she could from record stores, not bothering to hide her antipiracy vigilantism and daring clerks to stop her.

On a trip to Paris in 1991, one clerk did. She was whisked off to see the manager, who berated her before picking up the phone to call the police.

“I told him to go right ahead,” she wrote in the liner notes to “Charles Mingus: Revenge,” a 1996 concert album. “I also suggested he call the daily newspapers as well as the television crews for the evening news and also the principal French jazz magazines whose offices happen to be across the street, so that I could explain everything to everyone at once.”

The manager put down the phone and let her leave, with the records in hand.

Sue Graham was born on April 2, 1930, in Chicago and raised in Milwaukee. Her family was musical: Her father, Louis Graham, was a businessman and amateur opera singer, and her mother, Estelle (Stone) Graham, was a homemaker and harpist.

After graduating from Smith College with a degree in history in 1952, she moved to Paris, where she worked as an editor at The International Herald Tribune.

A later job editing for an airline magazine called Clipper took her to Rome, where she met and married artist Alberto Ungaro. They had two children, Roberto and Susanna, and moved to New York City in 1958. She worked for New York Free Press, an alternative weekly, and in 1969 founded Changes, a cultural magazine.

She later separated from Ungaro, who died in 1968. Along with her children, Mingus is survived by four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

For all her decades of effort, Mingus remained unwilling to take full credit for burnishing her husband’s legacy.

“It keeps itself alive,” she told The Boston Globe in 2002. “I just happen to be a passenger.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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