"He tried hypnosis, biofeedback, herbs, teas, mud baths and even drank the blood of an iguana," said Susan Graham Mingus. "He didn't accept the established medical views. So he tried all those different cures. It was a carnival. He was so enthusiastic."
Susan Mingus was recalling the last six months in the life of her late husband, the acclaimed jazz composer/bassist Charles Mingus.
His body deteriorating from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the muscular illness also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Mingus died at age 56 of a heart attack on Jan. 5 in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
The semmingly indomitable musician, who led his sidemen through performances as if he were directing a cavalry charge, had gone to Mexico in search of his personal Lourdes.
Nine months after his death, his widow is intent on keeping the Mingus spirit alive. She was the key force in organizing the Mingus Dynasty, a seven-piece orchestra of former Mingus sidemen including Jimmy Knepper, Dannie Richmond, Ted Curson and John Handy. The band will appear tonight at the Bayou, 3135 K St. NW.
Mingus will live on," she said, brushing back her soft red hair and smoking yet another cigarette. "People will interpret him in their own idioms. Joni Mitchell [who collaborated with Mingus on an album before his death] is an example.
"Claude Nougaro, a French pop singer, has written lyrics to 'Fables of Faubus," not knowing that someone had already done it.
Charles' music was so personal and definitive. While he was alive, people were afraid to touch it. Now they're trying it."
However, she's finding out that running a band is not all that easy.
"The band is leaderless," she said in a slight lament. "I find myself leading a band and I'm not a musician. Dannie [Richmond] kicks off the band and sets tempos. Jimmy [Knepper] and Sy Johnson score the music. And I get the dates.
"This is not just a memorial band, a tribute band. It's a working group of some of the best musicians that passed through the [Mingus] Jazz Workshop.
"I think it's a tribute to Mingus that someone like Jimmy is in the band. You know Mingus hit him in the mouth and Jimmy wasn't able to play for about five years."
As his wife and manager, she occasionally felt the lash of the volatile Mingus temper, known for its extremes of frozen callousness and gentle affection.
"It was like living with a life force," she said, remembering the 15 years they spent together."Sometimes he overreacted, but his reasons for doing what he did were always on target. I don't know if I was ever a calming force. I can't think of any incident.
"The last 10 years he changed. He calmed down. Some of his anger was probably organic. He took an awful lot of pills at one time. But except for a couple of incidents, he was not a violent man."
However, the 5-foot-9 3/4, 262-pound Mingus, who wrote programmatic music and an angry autobiography and issued manifestoes from the bandstand, had a lot as a black man to fight about, she said.
Despite her white, middle-American background (born and raised in Milwaukee, graduate of Smith College and editor and publisher of Changes, an arts newspaper in New York), she said race was not a problem in their relationship.
"People have to get past those ridiculous limitations," she explained. "In the beginning, Charles saw prejudice everywhere, but he changed."
The two met in the early 1960s. He was performing at the Five Spot Cafe in Greenwich Village. "I liked him immediately," she said. "He was sitting in a corner, wrapped up in this enormous chicken bone!"
Though they lived together for many years, the couple didn't marry until 1975.
"We just didn't think it was necessary," she said. "Actually, we were 'married' by Allen Ginsberg in the mid-'60s. Charles just said, 'Hey man, marry us.' And he did. He chanted for an hour."
In 1975, "we were on our way to Europe and fell by the office of the justice of the peace [in New York]," she recalled. "I had newspapers under my arm. The justice asked me if I'd please put the newspapers down for three or four minutes. It had all the emotional intensity of waiting at a bus stop!"
Whenever Susan Mingus talks about her husband's last days, her voice loses some of its sharpness. She becomes subdued, almost philosophical.
"The hardest part was the last year," she reminisced. "There was no one who lived life like Mingus. But when you're paralyzed like that, a house fly can be terrifying."
Confined in a wheelchair, Mingus went to Mexico after the White House Jazz Festival in June 1978. At the festival, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan told him of the Mexican dancer, Pachita, who'd had a "kitchen knife operation" for cancer and was dancing again 10 days later.
"We were on a plane for Mexico the next week," she said. "He had an operation and seemed better for about a month. He ate a lot of crushed pineapple ice cream puffs."
But on Jan. 5, when a son from a previous marriage was transferring him from the wheelchair to a bed, Mingus had a heart attack.
"Up to the end, Charles had no use for self-pity," his widow said, lowering her head. "We had a friend who called and said she was throwing herself out of her third-floor loft downtown. Right away he said, 'Come over here. We're 40 floors up. You can be sure'."
Complying with her husband's wishes, she had his body cremated and took the ashes to India for dispersal over the Ganges.
"Charles didn't take part in any formal religion," she explained. "He thought he had a direct pipeline to God! Charles also believed in reincarnation. He was very indignant about the carnival atmosphere of many jazz funerals.
"For me, going to India was magnificient. It gave me a chance to be alone, to get away from the fanfare. It was so foreign, so spiritual. The beaches were empty, and the white sand was beautiful.
"I stayed a week before the ceremony was held. The ceremony took place at dawn. It was very brief and very joyful. Indians have a different approach to death. They believe life goes on.
"I remember asking him one day when he'd come back -- since he believed in reincarnation. He got very serious and said, 'I'm not going to leave!"