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In Memoriam: Sue Mingus

Craig Handy recalls Mingus (April 2, 1930–Sept. 24, 2022) as a nurturing and protective producer.

In January of 1987, somebody told Sue Mingus there’s this new tenor player in town, and so she came out to a gig on Long Island to hear me play with Roy Haynes. She liked what she heard and hired me on the spot for Mingus Dynasty. My first tour was with John Handy, Jimmy Knepper, Randy Brecker, James Newton, Dannie Richmond, Hugh Lawson and Reggie Johnson; that was my introduction into the Mingus universe. 

Then in 1991, Sue started the Mingus Big Band and had it in residency at Fez. She asked me to fill an alto chair because there were too many tenors and not enough altos. So I played alto and Sue said, “Oh, you sound great on alto! I’m gonna move you to alto.” I was like, “Uhh…” but she said, “No, don’t worry, you’re gonna love it.” So she moved me to alto and it kind of stuck. 

Sue was our champion, our flag bearer. She was highly protective of the musicians. She traveled with us most of the time, and if the promoters didn’t treat us right—if there was something wrong with the hotel or the travel—she was not afraid to get in anyone’s face about how you can’t treat artists of this caliber like that. She would say “That’s it, we’re done,” and put us in a better hotel. 

She was also very protective of Charles’s legacy. She had trained as a classical pianist, so she had the ear, and living with him she must have picked up a thing or two as well. So, although she left us alone when it came to playing the music, she could tell whether it was happening or not. 


More than anything, though, she was a ball of energy. She would not take “no” for an answer. After Sue produced the Epitaph premiere at Lincoln Center in 1989, she went looking for funding to take it on the road. It took her two or three years to find it, but she never stopped looking. She took it early on to the Ford Foundation, they said no; she went to several other companies and non-profits and whatnot, they all said no; she just kept knocking on doors and telling people “This is great, there’s nothing like this in the world, it needs to be funded.” And then the Ford Foundation suddenly came around, and once they got on board everybody else wanted to be on board too. Sue did that!

She thought very highly of me, and I really appreciated it. Sue went on tour with us, and one of her mandates was that every time we went to a major city with a beautiful museum, she wanted to go and check out the latest exhibitions. I was fascinated by it and wanted to see every exhibit that we could, so we used to hang. We would go to the museums and other hijinks—going to restaurants and checking out the city, time allowing—and at her memorial, one of her best friends told me, “Sue really appreciated the fact that when you guys went to Europe, you would always go with her to all the museums.” That really meant a lot.

I had retired from the band in 2015, but I last saw her three or four years ago at the Jazz Standard for one of the birthday celebrations. She was lucid then, told me she missed me and it was good to have me back, but around that time she went into assisted living and people told me she had good days and bad. I still had her in my mind as this fearless woman that would charge through boardroom doors screaming at the top of her lungs—buckling in and doing things without roadmaps. I didn’t want to see her being anything but that person I remembered her being. In retrospect I think I was preparing myself for her passing. 


I’m happy that she’s at peace and digging the sounds at wherever Ellington, Mingus, and Monk are playing. [As told to Michael J. West]