To Pluck the Strings of Life: “Tonight At Noon – A Love Story” by Sue Graham Mingus

I had no specific expectations of the book “Tonight at Noon: A Love Story” (DaCapo Press, 2003) other than it was going to be a wild ride with Charles Mingus and his wife. And so it was.

The man was gifted yet tormented; breaking from norms of performing, writing, hearing and seeing, he discerned beyond the nuance of the note. Those who went to live performances in his early years and, because of something that had been troubling Mingus that day, had their hopes dashed as he just walked off the set…that was maybe a counterbalance to the times when he was so embedded in his moment that the music emanating from the stage transported musician and audience member alike.

The differences in backgrounds between he and his wife Sue Graham Mingus (who since his death in 1979 has stepped up brilliantly to keep the music alive via the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Dynasty, and others) would seem to make for a very odd couple, but something kept them together, willingly nourishing each other. Mingus’s musical career was his whole existence, and nothing, not his appreciation of art nor a hunger that was huge and enthusiastic enough to eat the world, stood outside of that. All was music and music was all.

The family dynamics described in the book took a tragic yet fascinating turn when Mingus fell ill with ALS, resulting in a family pilgrimage brimming with hope and desperation through some extreme circumstances in Mexico, seeking a cure. Mingus’s belief in being healed while also knowing his decline could only end one way was actually its own character in the story arc. The writing shows (not tells) that he never lost his appetite for music nor his love for Sue; both burned brightly and are reflected in the music today, whether being played live (or now, streaming) by the band itself or by any of the millions of jazz lovers around the globe who have studied Mingus and are inspired by him.

The best thing to love about this story is how skillfully the author rendered her husband as not a caricature but as a living, breathing, drinking and eating human, and how adroitly she navigated the good and the bad: the times he was monstrous, maddening, inconsistent and frustrating. The tone here is honest, descriptive and loving, but rarely sentimental.

Definitely a recommend.

For more information visit

Photos courtesy of Sarah M. Williams, Jazz Workshops Inc.

(c) 2021 Debbie Burke

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