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Notations from Harold Mabern

While in New York recently, I saw one of the unsung icons of the 1960s hard bop scene perform. Pianist Harold Mabern has played with such notables as Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis; but it’s his own music that continues to garner acclaim. During a set break at the Village Vanguard, I talked with the gregarious jazz man who says fried chicken, cornbread and candied yams go best with jazz.

Whom would you talk to if you could: Art Tatum, Red Garland or Duke Ellington—though I have a feeling there might be an Erroll Garner in there?
Definitely Erroll Garner, because Erroll Garner was one of the most unique pianists that ever lived. You’ve got a few that are unique:  Erroll Garner and his homey Ahmad Jamal. They went to George Washington High School together in Pittsburgh. But Erroll Garner by far because, first of all, to be able to play like that, to conceptualize the piano and not have been a studied musician. He could play anything in any key. So, Erroll Garner, that’s a school in itself. A lot of piano players never approach that.

You were born in Memphis, but you said Chicago had a definite calling for you in the ‘60s. Why?
Because there was music around the clock, 24 hours a day. It was ubiquitous in that you can have ten different groups in Chicago, but they were all playing different music. They all had their own repertoire, so if you went to one group and learn, then go to another group, you had something different—all in the same city.

Tell me about this heavy-to-the-right hair style you had back in the day.

That was the hair style we had. It was almost like a small Afro. We called it “heavy to the right” because the right was about three to four inches high, and the left side was shaved down with a part in it. That’s why they called it “heavy to the right.” Right side high; left side low, the era of 1948-54.

You knew John Coltrane?
I knew him well. I worked opposite him at Birdland because I played with all the singers in Birdland. He was like a saint. He wasn’t stuck up or anything, but he was so gentle and not egotistical. He was a pleasure, a joy. Being around John Coltrane was like being around a saint, but he was still dissatisfied because of the music. He always felt he was hearing something he couldn’t play.

Do you agree with the idea that West Coast jazz is different than East Coast?
That’s not happening anymore. The West Coast sound is lighter in texture; the East Coast more grainy. But it’s not like that anymore because the coasts have caught up with each other. I was born in the South, where we had to play the blues, which we hated to play the blues; but now we realize that’s a blessing because everybody can’t play the blues. I’m still writing music and still learning music. Ahmad Jamal said the day you stop learning, you might as well go crawl in a hole.

Please fill in the blanks: “I heard this song ____ the other day and I thought I’d like to add that to my repertoire because ____.”
I heard “Down Here on the Ground.” It’s from the movie “Cool Hand Luke” by Lalo Schifrin. It’s a very melodic song and I like songs that have beautiful melodies. I’m drawn to that, so that would be something I’d love to add to my repertoire.

What’s something about you that would surprise people?
I’ve never been stumped with a question. But I guess my tenderness, as far as being a gentle human being. Because most people when they meet me, they pick that up. I’m not perfect, but I’m pure of heart.

Harold Mabern; jazz

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