Like a lot of people with a surface knowledge of jazz, I had heard of Charles Mingus. I knew that he was one of the greatest composers of the 21st century, that he was the “angry man of jazz” and that he had once ripped the door off of the famous Village Vanguard jazz club. What I didn’t know, was that everything about Charles was Mingus.
When asked what kind of music he played, Charles’ answer was “Mingus Music.” His style was Mingus style, his outbursts were Mingus outbursts, his humor; Mingus humor. But what surprised me perhaps the most, was that even to his wife Sue he was simply, Mingus.
The two met in 1964 at the Five Spot Jazz Club, where Mingus and Thelonius Monk reigned as resident acts. “I was in a movie at the time, a Robert Frank movie,” Sue Mingus said. “Robert wanted a jazz soundtrack and I went to go see Mingus,” said Sue. “That was my first introduction to jazz and Mingus.”
While Sue’s movie career didn’t last, her love for both jazz and Mingus remained. The two were officially married in 1975, though Alan Ginsberg had unofficially married them years before at a friend’s engagement party. “Mingus saw him and immediately said, “Marry us!” Alan picked up two chairs and just started an incantation,” Sue said. “He used symbols that he hashed together and chanted something like ‘Rama Rama, Krishna Krishna’ for about two hours and after that we were married.”
Sharing a passion rivaled only by the one Mingus had for his music, the two spent years in and out of smoky jazz clubs, travelling and living a uniquely 60s lifestyle. However, when Charles was diagnosed with A.L.S, an incurable and debilitating illness also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Sue’s role changed from wife to caretaker.
Desperate to cure or even to simply slow Mingus’ disease, the pair traveled to Mexico to consort with a 72-year-old witch and voodoo clinics. “We wanted to try to beat the rap. There was a famous healer named Patchita who was supposed to be doing miracles.” Sue famously wrote about this experience in her book, “Tonight at Noon” in 2002.
When magic failed and with nothing more to lose, they tried everything they could including a hospital in Switzerland where Charlie Chaplin had once been treated.
Attempts were made to transfer the cells of an unborn baby lamb – the liver, bladder, heart – to Charles in an effort to at slow the disease’s progress. When that again failed, Sue fought harder, and tried to help him herself. “I had them remove a pint of my blood to see how strong my defense system was. I had this idea that if I had a strong defense system and that he was injected with my blood that my defense system might go to battle for him.”
Though their efforts in Mexico did not cure Charles, they spent a vast amount of their last years there together. “We went everywhere. We’d rent special cars for people in wheelchairs and we’d go to jazz clubs, discos and dinner. He never lost his appetite.”
As Charles’ health deteriorated he continued to compose. He switched from bass to piano when he began to lose function in his hands and from piano to vocal dictation when it was lost all together. Joni Mitchell famously turned some of these vocal compositions into the album “Mingus,” commended by one Rolling Stone reviewer as being one of the most “Mingus” albums to come out after Charles passed away in Mexico on January 5, 1979.
Sue Mingus has dedicated her life to preserving all that is Mingus. Sue Mingus Imprint, her own music label, has released around 15 CDs since Charles died, of the Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Orchestra and the Grammy winning Mingus Big Band groups she has created. She supports numerous A.L.S groups, and recently spoke out in support of the Prize4Life organization, which uses monetary incentives to drive a cure for the disease. “Music isn’t played forever as they say, it dies. This is an effort to keep this music performed and alive for audiences.”
Mingus’ ashes were scattered in the Ganges River in India. Both New York City and Washington, D.C. honored him posthumously with a “Charles Mingus Day.” The Mingus Bands continue to play his songs. But, it’s the petite, mid-Western, debutante who fell in love with the explosive, hip, musician that really keeps things, Mingus.