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Mingus & Joni Mitchell: The Black Saint & the Singer Lady

An excerpt from "Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell" by David Yaffe

Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus
Joni Mitchell and Charles Mingus (photo by Sue Mingus)

In his final, terrible year of 1978, life was slipping from Charles Mingus each day, and he needed to do something to spread the word—maybe find a new audience for his records. Damn, he was 55 years old and not ready to check out. The concert stage was finally opening up for him! He was just getting ready for his renaissance.

Sue Graham Mingus, his indefatigable wife—who knew a thing or two about working the press when she edited the hip magazine Changes—was frantically looking for a final project. She wrote some lyrics for his songs, but they weren’t good enough. The Philharmonic was booked. She needed something big right away. Producer Daniele Senatore showed Sue and Charles the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and played it for them. Joni Mitchell was clearly more than jazz curious, and was even using her record cover to explore her inner (and outer) black man. Could this be the woman to give Charles a fancy funeral? Could this be a way for Joni to get some musical education from a true master? They sent smoke signals in Joni’s direction, and they wanted to give her an impression that Mingus, who had actually been unfamiliar with Joni’s work, was a fan of “Paprika Plains,” and admired how she was stretching out with bassist Jaco Pastorius and other musicians not exactly on his radar. It hardly mattered. Not only was Joni summoned, she was importuned, but by the great man himself, a shrewd tactic on Sue’s part.

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