It happened on a hot summer night in 1964.
Charles Mingus, “the angry man” of jazz, sitting alone in a club called The Five Spot, eating a steak dinner with his hands. He was 42 that year, a living legend, already widely acknowledged to be a virtuoso of the double bass and one of the finest composers that jazz had ever produced. The man himself was as passionate and turbulent as his music: he was renowned for his temper, his radical politics, his appetite for good food and a good fight.
Sue Graham, sitting at a table nearby with a friend. She is tanned and relaxed, dressed in a white silk suit, a classic beauty of the era–thin as a whisper, with lovely bones. She has a coif of fine thick ash-brown hair, wide eyes set deep beneath the brow, enormous high rounded cheekbones, a razor jaw and a nose that could cut glass. She is a woman of refinement and grace, raised to be a debutante: early photos of her show us a child pinned on either side by the firm hand of a two nannies, or standing as a teenage girl in the exact same chiffon gown that every other girl is wearing at a ball. Meals were served at a table where maids could be summoned with a silver bell. Her brothers wore starched shirts and ties to dinner.
But when she saw Charles Mingus, Sue Graham says, “I liked him immediately. I liked his aloneness in the tumultuous room, his concentration on the outsized beef bone at hand…. 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…”
Charles Mingus and Sue Graham were completely, impossibly, ridiculously wrong for one another. Every tiniest detail of their personalities and their backgrounds clashed.
Charles was born in Nogales and raised in Watts. He was 50% black and 100% pissed off. As a teen he rode through Los Angeles on his motorcycle, a lasso at his side, and roped the heads off every black jockey statue he found on those manicured lawns.
Sue was the daughter of a wealthy family in Milwaukee–the whitest, safest city in America. Her father drove her through the quiet green countryside on Sunday afternoons, to look at cows.
Charles was a titanic, solitary presence, the veteran of many love affairs and countless flings–he had left more than one wife and child behind him over the years. Once, when his son threatened to hang himself, Charles recommended the #29 rope.
Sue was just ending a decade of marriage, but still considered the man she was divorcing her best and closest friend. She was a devoted mother to her two children, and loved them passionately.
Sue was steely, cool, controlled and composed: Charles was volcanic, outrageous, mercurial and chaotic. Even their bodies were contradictory: she was an ascetic model-thin white woman whose weight never fluctuated more than five pounds in 40 years, and he was a decadently voluptuous black man who could yo-yo between rail-thin and 300 pounds repeatedly.
And yet these two somehow fell in love. They even married, eventually. And a love like this one seems to substantiate every notion put forward about the human soul and its immortality—because if two people so utterly different, seemingly at war with each other is every way, can still love one another to the brink of death and beyond? Then there is definitely something within us which transcends all our superficial qualities. Flesh, upbringing, societal mores—all meaningless by comparison. We are more than nature or nurture: and this nameless extra quality, bright and sharp within us, outlives our bodies the way a good sword outlives the sheath.
Tonight at Noon is one of the most rendingly beautiful stories I’ve ever read. The book covers the full arc of a fifteen-year relationship, from the moment that Sue Graham and Charles Mingus met until the day he died. The second half of the book is a detailed account of the long illness which finally claimed Charles Mingus in January of 1979.
These passages are both wonderful and excruciating to read. Charles was dying slowly of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, numbness and paralysis claiming his body inch by inch. This creeping process of disintegration is particularly horrifying when it happens to such a vibrant, powerful human being. People like Mingus are never meant to die slow. You expect to lose them in fiery cataclysms, glorious battles, overdoses, accidents, or brief heart-clutching agony. To watch death come and take them a nibble at a time, for months, is unbearable. All the more so because such a person can never stop fighting for life.
Toward the end, when modern medical science had no more hope to offer him, Charles Mingus returned to the traditional magic of his roots. He went to Mexico to seek out the services of a curandera, and allowed her to work a series of native cures which only the most determined patient could endure: prayers, poultices and potions with ingredients ranging from green cow dung to the blood of a freshly slaughtered iguana. Throughout this process Sue never left him, remaining at his side and fighting just as fiercely as he did for every last minute of life.
What we have here is a very intimate account of two people who loved each other very deeply, at a time when they were both being stretched to the limits of their formidable bravery and strength. You could not pick two more worthy opponents for Death…but humanity never wins that battle, no matter how we try.
For the first half of this book, I kept asking myself the question: “What did Charles Mingus see in this woman?” She was beautiful, of course, but there are a lot of beautiful women in the world, and 99% of them aren’t going to put a man through nearly as much crap as Sue did. She held Charles off for eight years before she would let him even move in with her…which is almost unbelievable, when you realize that it’s Mingus we’re talking about. Some of the stories from their courtship are both frightening and hilarious, and this book is worth reading just for those sections alone.
In the end, I took a pause in my reading and put a CD of Mingus music in the tray. It was through the opening strains of “Tonight at Noon” that it all became clear.
Sue Graham was the golden string of the old bardic legends. The image shows up in a few different stories: when a Celtic hero would perform a particularly heroic stunt, the gods would reward him with a single golden string for his harp—a string that would never break.
I never really understood the appeal of such a gift until I sat listening to Mingus play.
It’s all in the strength of those hands.
This was a man who had calluses like stone; he could spend days doing exercises to strengthen a single finger. NO ONE plays like that anymore, with that kind of sheer physical power. Modern-day bassists use amplification to get a sound that will fill the club–they don’t just tear at the strings like a tiger. Under an onslaught like that, Mingus must have snapped strings left and right. A length of gut or wire is just not capable of taking that punishment for long.
But it’s obvious in retrospect that the whole world must have seemed just as fragile to Charles. He was just too big and too strong for this joint. Chairs would collapse under his weight; glasses would shatter in his hand. Most people would blow away like leaves when he roared.
And then here, at last, was Sue. When he yelled, she yelled back. When he gave orders, she said “go to hell”. When he exercised all the titanic force of his will…she was still capable of saying “no”. Winning the love of a woman like that was worth any amount of effort, for him. He desperately needed a golden string.
And lo and behold–he got one. She’s still ringing true, decades later. The loyalty of Sue Graham Mingus has never wavered, in the twenty years since Charles died; she has worked tirelessly to keep her husband’s musical legacy alive. Within a week of his passing she had released his ashes at the headwaters of the Ganges. A few months later she had formed “The Mingus Dynasty”, a seven-piece jazz band who would continue to perform his music over the years. In 1995 she founded Revenge Records, specifically for the purpose of stealing back all the Mingus material which had been illegally released by pirates over the years. She is a relentless fighter…and has never ceased to be a loving wife.
This story is one of the oldest known to mankind, and dates back to Inanna and Demuzi: “Once upon a time, there was a woman who was not content to let her beloved die, and she was willing to go to hell and back to reclaim his soul.”
Not everyone can love this way. I admire those who can.