About the Author
Sue Graham Mingus, a former magazine editor and publisher, is currently a music producer. She has created and directs repertory ensembles that carry on the music of Charles Mingus. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
I met Charles Mingus shortly before midnight in July 1964. I'd gone down to the Five Spot, a jazz club in lower Manhattan, because the producer of a film I was acting in had commissioned a jazz soundtrack from saxophonist Ornette Coleman -- at least he thought he had commissioned a soundtrack -- and my friend Sam Edwards, who was working on the film, suggested I check out the scene. I didn't know the first thing about jazz. Sam warned me I was not with it, especially for someone in New York, but added in his usual upbeat fashion that anyone could learn. Members of the cast had given me an Ornette Coleman album called Something Else, and I had listened over and over to a Miles Davis record called Miles Ahead, because the director of the film had played it over and over in the apartment where we were shooting during the long intervals between takes. That was the extent of my baptism into the music.
Sam picked me up at my apartment on the Upper West Side and we headed down to the Village Gate, where the trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was performing. Around midnight when Dizzy's set ended, we drove across town to the Five Spot to hear Mingus. In those days the Five Spot was one of the liveliest jazz hangouts in New York City. Jazz was peaking and both Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, who had recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine, could play at the same place for six months straight and keep people coming. It was a time, Sam explained, when Charles Mingus was referred to in the press as jazz's angry man.
I'd barely heard of Mingus, though echoes of his reputation had filtered down: the ornery, sometimes violent, often unjust, blustery figure who fired his musicians onstage, hired them back, denounced the audience for inattention, picked fights, mastered his instrument, dominated his music, vented his political beliefs on stage, presented a larger-than-life personality, and created on-the-spot performances for all to see. He was the essence of a sixties "happening," people said -- those spontaneous events of the era that were everywhere around town.
Intermission had just begun when we arrived, and musicians were still lingering near the stage. We found a couple of seats at the bar and Sam ordered me a gin and tonic. I was unwinding from a visit home to my dad's -- not really home, which had been Milwaukee, but my father's retirement place in Florida where I'd gone to discuss family problems: mine, marital and economic; his, an end-of-life hobbling illness.
He'd discovered that my phone wasn't working when he tried to call, and when I told him my marriage was close to being off the hook as well, he'd suggested I come down to talk it over. I'd soaked up the sun during our long discussions and now, back in New York, was hoping to blur the details of life for a few more hours, relaxing in a club. I was tanned and dressed in off-white clothes from head to toe. "Like a bottle of milk," Sam said, laughing, when he saw my cream-colored ensemble -- skirt, blouse, matching summer heels. "You could be a blurb for your home state. America's Dairyland in linen."
I informed him it was silk, not linen, and that even my father had complimented me at the airport -- an event I was still savoring, considering that our family had always avoided praise. For once, I said, Mom's convent ghosts were not kicking in. Sam knew about the Convent of the Sacred Heart where my mom had spent her childhood. I'd told him about the prestigious finishing school for Catholic young ladies whose rituals and distaste for excess and display were as alive and disapproving six decades later as they had been at the turn of the century.
I was touched by the unlikely attention my father had lavished on me earlier in the day and couldn't help bragging to Sam as we sat together on our stools, waiting for the music to begin.
"He gazed at my silk dress, my high heels and jewelry -- I'm not usually so dressed up -- and he saw my pinned-up hair, a whiff of hairspray holding it in place, and he told me I was a beautiful woman. Perhaps it was the first time he saw me. I think he was proud." The waiter had set down my drink and then run off to get Sam's, which he'd forgotten. "Of course he was shy about it, it was such an intimate thing to say. We never talked about looks in our family, you know. I don't remember compliments at all -- not even about our accomplishments. They were dangerously linked to vanity in Mom's mind. And then, of course, my parents had expectations; you were expected to do well without flattery or approval. That's how they were." I looked at Sam. "I mean, my brothers and I didn't feel deprived."
I was aware that I was justifying what might seem like a spartan fear of excess or of personal expression.
"Well, here's to fatherly praise." Sam raised his glass. After surveying the room, he pointed to someone at a distant table and said it was Mingus. I'd already noticed the individual who was eating alone at a table for four, a man so aloof and removed from the late-night mob around him that he seemed like a remote island plunked down by accident in a sea of people. His sleeves were rolled up, a steak bone was in his fist, and his eyes were focused on the round plate of food before him, as intense and private as a holy man meditating on his chakra. He looked as if he might lavish the same brooding intensity on everything he touched. For the moment it happened to be his dinner.
I liked him immediately. I liked his aloneness in the tumultuous room, his concentration on the outsized beef bone at hand. He was consumed in the act of eating, lost in the pleasure of it despite the Saturday night frenzy and noisy tourist crowd around him, an unself-conscious, perspiring, focused man, exposed and unimpressed, a man too concentrated within himself for fear. My own life had been one of order and balance, founded on grammar and taste and impeccable manners, and yet something about the man across the room seemed oddly familiar, like someone I already knew, a relation in the family, some critical presence or weight like my father, looming beyond scale or size -- although Mingus was not physically heavy then, nor was my father ever. I suppose now that it was just some soothsayer wraith blowing down my neck, some fanciful wind from the future revealing for an instant, like a photo developed too soon and out of sequence, the far-off snapshot ahead.
There is a tiny snapshot on my wall at home, centered inside an oversized frame. It is myself, aged five, a postage stamp of childhood. In the tattered photo I am flanked by two stalwart nannies who grasp my hands. They are tall and erect and stand at attention. Even now I can feel my hands locked in theirs. They were in charge of running the kitchen, in charge of me. Although orders came from above -- from my mother who watched scrupulously over the preparation of food, the table settings, the lighting of candelabra, the preparation of my hair with a hot curling iron each morning before school -- they ran interference for her and upheld the law.
Our meals were formal occasions at which my brothers wore ties and freshly ironed shirts, a bell summoned the maids, and my father carved at the head of the table. Although formalities were altered when the war broke out and young women could earn a better, more independent living working in defense factories instead of serving in homes, dinners remained a crucial ritual that continued long afterward. They were a branding iron of form that burned through our lives and those of our children, whatever our circumstances. Even years later, in the days when I ran a newspaper and held frequent boisterous editorial meetings/banquets at home, Charles sprawled large and brooding over his favorite dishes at the head of the table, we consumed our meals under flickering candles, sat straight before our place settings, and covered our laps with linen. The corruption of table manners remained unthinkable. It was linked forever with the echoes of Mom's vivid descriptions of her early convent discipline -- the gothic punishments for a small elbow leaning on the dining table or a mistaken choice among the silver forks.
The expressions of the women in the snapshot are stern and protective beneath hats that slant rakishly low over their foreheads. Their long coats are slightly open; perhaps it is the first mild day at the end of winter, though the trees in the distance are bare, suggesting several weeks before spring. The women's lives are not about to blossom either, one imagines, although they are young enough and perhaps -- but no, I cannot imagine them as anything but jailkeepers. Outfitted in a double-breasted coat with matching hat, I squint irritably at my father with his box camera, my hands locked in theirs. One day I will escape to Europe, marry a freethinking Italian sculptor, and, when he dies, marry Charles. It is already written in the snapshot.
But wait, there is another picture beside it -- my mother, still young, taken by a professional photographer. She is beautiful and wears a beige linen dress, seated on a white wooden bench in the garden. She is carefree and gracious and without disappointment, years before her suicide. She holds a protective hand behind me as I balance on top of the bench and squint into the sun, seemingly unfettered. I am allowed my acrobatics, allowed to climb tall trees and back fences and explore the carefully designed world that is offered. I am given an illusion of independence, an abiding sense of freedom and the right to claim that freedom, that will last a lifetime.
As I watched, Mingus rose from the table and shouldered his way through the crowd. When he reached the bar, a bearded young man who was standing near us complained to him about Dizzy Gillespie's antics onstage at the very club Sam and I had just left. "Did you listen to him play?" Mingus responded immediately. Before the young man could reply, he continued: "Next time just listen to him blow his horn." Mingus stood at the bar near the ice buckets, looking glum. He'd been telling audiences to listen for more years than anyone could remember. Now, as the house cook moved past him, Mingus recalled another failure -- an overcooked steak from the night before -- and launched into a passionate complaint. The Chinese cook, who was called Samelschitt after his favorite expression, waited for the storm to run its course.
"Same old shit," he said under his breath and disappeared into the kitchen.
Mingus called for a bottle of Bordeaux -- his own, which he'd evidently brought from home -- and was standing so close to our stools that, as he drifted into wine talk with the bartender, I stole a glance at his eyes. They were large innocent eyes, I thought, vulnerable and questioning, deep brown amused eyes that darted about the room while he remained fixed on his conversation with the man at the bar. I decided to ask Mingus whether he'd seen Ornette Coleman, the musician Sam and I were looking for, whose free style of playing was still causing disputes among jazz fans.
"You mean the calypso player?" Mingus replied scornfully. He looked at me with curiosity. "You his old lady?" he asked.
"His mother?" I said. I hadn't the faintest notion what he meant.
Mingus laughed. "No, baby, I mean his woman, his lady."
Copyright © 2002 by Sue Graham Mingus