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Formidable and Fierce: Helen Sung remembers Sue Mingus

Charles and Sue Mingus
Charles and Sue Mingus

I first met Sue at the Fez under Time Cafe where the Mingus Big Band had a long residency. I had just moved to New York City and remember vividly the electric atmosphere, the raw, hard-swinging energy of the music, the creative chaos that marks the Mingus-scape. And at the center of this musical storm sat a petite woman with a commanding presence and piercing eyes—Sue Mingus.

I think I was a bit afraid of her when I first started working with the band. Formidable and fierce were two adjectives that came readily to mind: Sue had been married to a jazz legend, she started a band to play his music, she created performance opportunities (in addition to touring, residencies at the iridium followed by the Jazz Standard would come after the one at Fez) where the band could explore and work on this music, resulting in three main iterations: the Mingus Dynasty, the Mingus Big Band, and the Mingus Orchestra. She launched Let My Children Hear Music, a non-profit devoted to promoting Mingus’ music, and started the annual Mingus High School Festival and Competition, forming along the way a dedicated team which helped her with the day-to-day operations. Another huge milestone was producing a live performance of Mingus’ Epitaph—an epic work totaling over two hours of music that was only fully discovered during the cataloguing process of his compositions after his passing. Sue’s strength of will and tenacity are inspiring.

Over time, I got to know Sue better—from playing with the band of course, but there are two events that stand out in my mind. One of them is reading her book Tonight At Noon: A Love Story, an autobiography of her life with Mingus. Beautifully written (Sue being an excellent wordsmith and storyteller), I couldn’t put it down and promptly read the book again after finishing it the first time. I remember asking Sue about parts that especially fascinated me and enjoyed hearing her reminisce. What a life she had lived, and continued to live! She was a brilliant and complex individual, tough as nails, super smart. She could be severe and uncompromising, demanding from those around her the same dedication that she had to her vision. She was fearless. Fellow band members recounted

stories of Sue on the road with the band: one of my favorites is about how she would visit record stores in different cities the band performed in. When she found bootleg and pirated recordings of Mingus on the shelves, she would leave the store with them, bypassing the cash registers—which resulted in several run-ins with the law. Adapting my home state’s slogan: Don’t Mess with Sue Mingus.

The other is attending the parties Sue threw at her Manhattan Plaza apartment where she and Mingus lived – she knew how to show folks a great time, giving parties during the holiday season as well as having the occasional impromptu get-together. I remember the amazing memorabilia that was everywherein the apartment—Mingus’ bass, his original handwritten scores, artwork, photos. I appreciated getting to see and experience another side of Sue: relaxed, a gracious hostess full of humor and wit. I remember there was a huge birdcage in the apartment filled with potted plants and stuffed animals. It was quite striking. I asked if they had ever kept birds in the cage. She said yes, but the birds laid so many eggs one day she declared, “An ouef is an ouef.” Absolutely hilarious, we all cracked up!

The time we get to spend with the important people in our lives is of course never “an ouef,” and so it is with the singular spirit that is Sue Mingus. At a recent show, one musician remarked how Sue helped jump-start the careers of many of the artists who came through the band, so how wonderful that she was recently honored with the 2023A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy (announced on July 14, 2022). I am glad Sue received this award while she was still with us, and hope she knew how much she was appreciated, especially by those of us who had the opportunity to play in the Mingus bands, where we learned how to “hear music out of love / From the soul, for this life / We all live infinite / With a lover and beloved / As one Ellington Sound Of Love.” (from Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love, music and lyrics by Charles Mingus).

Helen Sung is an acclaimed pianist and composer. Born and raised in Houston, TX, she studied classical piano and violin and attended Houston’s renowned High School for the Performing & Visual Arts (HSPVA). Continuing her classical piano studies at the University of Texas at Austin, a chance meeting with jazz music caused an eventual course change: she went on to graduate from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance (at the New England Conservatory) and win the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Jazz Piano Competition. Now based in New York City, Helen has worked with such luminaries as the late Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Wynton Marsalis (who named her as one of his “Who’s Got Next: Jazz Musicians to Watch”), MacArthur Fellows Regina Carter and Cecile McLorin Salvant, and Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy-winning “Mosaic Project.” Helen and her band have performed at major festivals/venues including Newport, Monterey, SFJAZZ, Disney Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Internationally, her “NuGenerations” Project toured southern Africa as a U.S. State Department Jazz Ambassador, and recent engagements include debuts at the London Jazz Festival, Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai, Blue Note Beijing, and the Sydney International Women’s Jazz Festival. In addition, she currently performs with fine ensembles including the Mingus Big Band and McLorin Salvant’s Ogresse.