Through the eyes of Mrs. Mingus

By Andy Sywak, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday April 06, 2002


Sue Mingus, widow of the late jazz great Charles Mingus, will be at Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue this evening to read from her new book, “Tonight at Noon: A Love Story.” A memoir of her 15-year relationship with the famous bassist and composer, the book’s title itself is pulled from a Mingus tune. 

The event begins at 6 p.m. with a performance from four members of the Mingus Big Band, a group of performers Ms. Mingus pulled together to continue to play her late husband’s music. The group performs later that night at Yoshi’s. 

A former magazine editor and publisher, Mingus had the publication of “Tonight at Noon” coincide with the 80th anniversary of her husband’s birth. The book tells the story of the couple’s courtship that began serendipitously at a New York nightclub in 1964 and weaved its way through the avant-garde jazz circles during the next two decades. Talking about the challenge of writing her first book, Mingus jokes, “I was supposed to have a page of acknowledgements but didn’t get it in on time.” 

Mingus said she originally wanted to have her book focus on her husband’s death caused by Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 1979. Titled “The Portrait of an Artist as a Dying Man,” it was to chronicle his final days as the couple visited a witch doctor in Mexico in a last-ditch attempt to save Charles’ failing health. The original intentions carry over into “Tonight at Noon” as Mingus admits that one-quarter of the book  

deals with their final time together in Mexico and the scattering of his ashes in the Ganges River – a request of her husband who believed in reincarnation. 

“People started asking me lots of questions and it turned into a much more personal memoir than I had anticipated,” she said. “It turned into a book about a relationship.” Describing the writing of the book as a “fearsome project,” Mingus filtered through old memories over a three-year period to complete her memoir.  

“It [Charles’ death] was much more painful to live through,” Mingus said. “It was an experience that I wanted to write about. I was tired of the perception of Charles as this one-sided, generally aggressive man.” Mingus refers to her husband’s legendary temper that earned him the moniker as “jazz’s angry man.” 

Known as much for his deft compositions and mastery of the bass as for his brusque demands for audience obedience and voracious appetite, Charles Mingus wrote and recorded music with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington among other jazz titans. Since his death, Ms. Mingus has been active organizing orchestras and concerts devoted to the performances of her husband’s compositions.  

With other books out that talk at length about Mingus’ musical vision, Ms. Mingus did not intend "Tonight at Noon" to cover her husband’s artistry and the history of jazz. 

"This book is hardly an objective study of Charles Mingus as a composer, it’s a reflection on our relationship," Mingus said. Describing her late husband as somebody who "lived up to every value shouted to him onstage," Mingus aimed to present "Charles as people do not know him," in her book.