Holy Crap! Who is this man with the giant
hands that play the piano so beautifully, and why haven't I been
listening to him?
Just last week my ignorance of jazz pianist
Harold Mabern was lifted when I saw him playing in
tenor saxist George Coleman's quartet at Smoke on
Manhattan's Upper West Side. To my ears, Mabern stole the
show with solos that used all the musical colors of the rainbow and
all the rhythmic movements of a belly dancer.
Harold Mabern was born on 20 March 1936 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Through high school he was a drummer, just fooling around on piano
at a friend's house. That started to change, first when he met
piano teacher Charles Thomas and then, most influentially,
after he encountered Phineas Newborn, Jr. who
would become Mabern's greatest influence.
Mabern moved from Memphis to Chicago in 1954
where he soon found work backing up tenor sax players Johnny Griffin,
Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordon. He made his recording debut
with drummer Walter Perkins' group called MJT + 3 in 1959.
Soon after, he moved to New York City
where his first jobs were with trumpter Harry "Sweets" Edison
and with Lionel Hampton's big band. Since then he's played
with such notables as Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins,
and Clark Terry. In the early 1970's he worked with Lee Morgan
up until the trumpeter's premature death.
Mabern explains a little about his background and its influence
on his music:
"There were some fine jazz musicians in Memphis, like
Phineas Newborn, Jr.,
who I've always said was a musical genius. But if you wanted to make a
living as a jazz musician in Memphis, you were also forced to play rhythm
and blues music. At the time, we all thought it was taking away from our
time with jazz. But now I realize what a joy it was. It takes a special
kind of feel that all great improvisers like Charlie Parker and
Clifford Brown understood. In fact, I think of myself as a blues pianist
who understands jazz."
In 1981 Mabern took a position teaching at New Jersey's
William Paterson University, where he still holds and adjunct position.
Eric Alexander, an up-and-coming tenor sax star, was a student in
Mabern's jazz combo class; now the two collaborate frequently.
I'll be on the lookout for Mabern recordings and will add more
as I learn more.
Terry Perkins' article at
was invaluable in learning more about Harold Mabern.