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Remembering Sue Graham Mingus, widow of composer and bassist Charles Mingus


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Sue Graham Mingus, the widow of the late composer and bass player Charles Mingus. Sue Graham Mingus died Saturday at the age of 92. After the death of her husband in 1979, she made it her mission to keep his legacy alive, forming the Mingus Big Band, a repertory ensemble devoted to playing Mingus compositions. Charles and Sue met in 1964, moved in together in '73, and married in '75. She wrote a memoir about her relationship with Mingus called "Tonight At Noon." We're going to listen to an excerpt of her 2002 interview with Terry Gross. Let's start with a 1959 Mingus recording of his composition "Better Git It In Your Soul."


TERRY GROSS: There was something about Mingus that seemed to inspire musicians to do their best work when they played with him. Some musicians that sound, you know, OK in other sad settings sound inspired, firing when they're playing with Mingus. Is there anything that you can think about that he did on the bandstand or in recording sessions that helped bring out those qualities in the musicians that played with him?

SUE GRAHAM MINGUS: Well, it was two things. It was Charles, but I have to say it was also the music because we have the same effects now. The musicians will tell you that he is there, lashing and whipping them and egging them on from the very center of the music. Part of this is absolutely a quality of the music itself. The other part was that Charles himself, at the helm, of course, was shouting and screaming and making demands on his musicians here and now on the stage. He would do anything that he needed to do to get the response he wanted. He would curse them and salt and fire them on stage, hire them back, cajole them, love them - anything that he could do to get that particular quality, that response of the music.

GROSS: In your book, you write that Mingus had said he didn't like pencil composers. He wanted his music to sound like the musicians were making it up as they were playing it. Maybe you could talk a little bit about Mingus' approach to composing.

MINGUS: Well, I have to say upfront that Charles never pretended to be consistent, and his views and his method of approaching music changed constantly, as his own approach to life. There was a time when he didn't like pencil composers. He felt that it took away from the immediacy of the music, and he would shout out the lines to the musicians and hum the melodies. But that changed. Of course, "Epitaph," his magnum opus, which was a score of 500 pages - it weighed 15 pounds on my bathroom scale. I weighed it one day. I mean, this was all written out. So you see, his approach changed. And what was true one decade was not necessarily true the next decade. Or it had expanded and included other approaches to music.

GROSS: I want to play a composition that Mingus dedicated to you, and this was recorded in the latter part of the '70s. It's called "Sue's Changes." What did he tell you about this piece when he told you about it?

MINGUS: Well, you know, Charles didn't talk about his compositions. He - nor did they necessarily reflect their titles. He would sometimes tack on a political title if there was something that moved or disturbed him in the news. And it might be a very lyrical, little up-tempo piece, and it might have a title like "Remember Rockefeller At Attica" during the prison uprising - or "Remember Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi U.S.A.," and it might be this kind of lilting, little tune that didn't sound like it represented the title at all. And again, there were other political pieces with vocal parts, like "Fables Of Faubus," that did indeed reflect a political statement at the time.

"Sue's Changes," I don't think we talked about - he was actually going to call that "Sue's Moods" and - because it goes through many different temporal changes and melodies. And I had a newspaper called Changes at the time, and I said, why don't you call it "Sue's Changes"? So he did, but he would always make a point of saying it had nothing to do with my newspaper.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Sue's Changes"?


DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed Sue Graham Mingus in 2002. Sue Graham Mingus died on Saturday. She was 92 years old.

On tomorrow's show, to help us understand the protests in Iran, we'll speak with Iranian American scholar Pardis Mahdavi, who was once dragged out of a Tehran classroom by morality police while lecturing about her book on Iran's sexual revolution. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.