Sue Mingus, the fourth wife and widow of Charles Mingus who for over 40 years curated his music and ensured its regular public performance, died September 24. She was 92.
Her death was announced on social media by the Charles Mingus Institute, the official name of Mingus’ estate, and on the Institute’s website. Cause and location of death were not given, but the announcement noted that she had “died peacefully with all her children and grandchildren around her.”
Coupled with the legendary bassist/composer for 15 years (though only legally married for four), Sue Mingus dedicated herself to preserving and promoting her husband’s work. She founded, directed, and managed three ensembles—Mingus Dynasty, Mingus Big Band, and Mingus Orchestra—to keep his compositions in front of the jazz audience. She also created a festival in his name, published several books about him, produced recordings of the Mingus repertory bands, and maintained an archive of his work and writings that became the Charles Mingus Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
She also nurtured many of the artists that passed through the ranks of the Mingus ensembles, including Jimmy Owens, Richard Williams, Craig Handy, Kuumba Frank Lacy, Conrad Herwig, Jeremy Pelt, Alex Norris, and Vincent Herring, among many others.
“Thank you for taking a chance on a twenty-something y/o to play the Drum chair behind the Mingus Big Band, Orchestra, and Dynasty,” wrote drummer Johnathan Blake on Facebook and Twitter.
On the other hand, Mingus was fiercely protective of her late husband’s legacy. She often told stories of going into record stores around the country and confiscating any bootlegs she found. In a particular favorite anecdote, a Parisian store manager threatened to call the police for theft; Mingus countered that he should also call the press so she could let them know that his store was selling “pirated jazz.”
Susan Graham was born April 2, 1930 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her father, Louis Graham, was a mechanical engineer turned inventor. Her mother was a harpist and pianist who had also aspired to be a Catholic nun. Graham grew up going to all-girls’ schools, continuing in 1948 into the all-female Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
She then moved to Paris, where she worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune. After two years, she moved on to Rome to work for Clipper, the in-flight magazine for Pan Am Airlines. There she met sculptor Alberto Ungaro, who became her first husband and the father of her two children.
In 1958 the Ungaros moved to New York, where Sue and Alberto eventually became estranged and separated. (Ungaro died in 1968.) She appeared in a 1963 experimental film called OK, End Here, and was attending the New York club The Five Spot with members of the film’s crew when she met Charles Mingus there in 1964. They quickly felt drawn to each other, with Allen Ginsberg performing an extralegal commitment ceremony for them in 1966. They finally married legally in 1975—around the time that Mingus was diagnosed with the ALS that would kill him four years later.
Shortly after his death, Sue Mingus formed the Mingus Dynasty to perform his work; soon after came the Mingus Big Band and Mingus Orchestra. She produced albums for all of the ensembles, and in 1989 organized and promoted the concert that saw the performance of Mingus’s magnum opus Epitaph. (She produced another performance of it, this time with newly discovered material, in 2007.) Her memoir of her life with Mingus, Tonight at Noon, was published in 2002. She also published books of Mingus’ music, including More Than a Fake Book and a series of books called More Than a Playalong.
In July, she was named a 2023 NEA Jazz Master—the recipient of the year’s A.B. Spellman Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy.
Mingus is survived by her two children from her first marriage, Susanna Ungaro and Roberto Ungaro; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Plans for memorial services and other details will be announced when finalized.