This is a recollection of an encounter with one of the great jazz musicians. It shows a side of Charles Mingus’s character that goes against the common depiction of him as an angry man.
Although the dinner party took place 40 years ago, Sue Mitchell remembers it as one of the most embarrassing events of her life. In the mid-70s, she and her husband Stan Meisler were visiting New York from Mexico. Her journalist husband had contacted an old New York school-friend, Paul Ash, and he had invited them to dinner.
Ash had kept in touch with Meisler for 20 years. He worked in his father’s flourishing music business and was married to a jazz singer called Ada. Ada was a close friend of Charles Mingus, and she invited the great bass player and his partner to make six for dinner. Sue, however, hadn’t a clue who Mingus was.
The Ash home was a four-storey brownstone house. It had a music room with a grand piano on one level. Sue even remembers the two dustbins at the entrance, one with “Ada” painted on it, the other with “Paul.”
Sue and Stan had arrived first, and she was sitting on a large sofa when this huge man entered the room and slumped down beside her. “He was obviously ill,” Sue recalls. “He was sweating, and seemed uncomfortable. He was grossly overweight.”
Sue thought she should make conversation, so she lamely asked him what he did for a living.
“I’m unemployed,” Mingus replied.
“I said I was sorry,” she recalls. “I felt so stupid. In retrospect I don’t think he was being sarcastic. Maybe he really was in between gigs.”
An awkward conversation ensued, and Mingus eventually volunteered that he had just spent two years on a book. By this time Sue’s brain was working overtime, trying to make out who this giant of a man really was.
The answer came when Mingus called Ada from the kitchen and asked her if he could give her copy of his book to Sue and replace it later. Ada retrieved the copy of Beneath the Underdog, and Mingus signed his autobiography: To Sue, from Charles Mingus.
When they all moved to the dinner table, it was a great effort for Mingus to get up from the couch. As the table talk went on, Sue gradually learnt more about Mingus. The conversation was mainly about jazz as the hosts knew all the leading New York musicians. Further, Ada played some Mingus music on the stereo.
But what really made an impression on Sue during the meal was the voracious appetite of Mingus: “He ate like a horse.” The table had been laden with food, but most disappeared, and what was left was packed into a doggie bag for Mingus to take home.
When they left, Stan and Sue shared a taxi with Mingus and his partner. “He sat in the back of the cab. I was really struck by his obesity. He was very uncomfortable.”
Mingus was not living with his partner, so he was most concerned she got home safely. Sue noticed how caring he was with his partner: “He insisted that the cab driver wait while he escorted her to the door of her apartment.”
“My overall impression of him was that he was a very dear man,” she says. “And no, I don’t have the book. I lent it to someone in Mexico and never got it back.”