A bandleader, composer and educator, he was sought after by top musicians to record with them, drawn by his harmonic sophistication and feel for the blues.
Harold Mabern, a pianist, composer, recording artist and teacher whose richly harmonic, soul-inflected style made him a sought-after bandmate for some of jazz’s premier musicians, died on Sept. 17 in New Jersey. He was 83.
The cause was a heart attack, his publicist, Maureen McFadden, said. She declined to specify the exact location of his death.
Starting in the 1960s, Mr. Mabern (pronounced MAY-burn) recorded more than two dozen albums as a bandleader, but he contributed to far more in bands led by luminaries like the trumpet player Lee Morgan, the guitarist Wes Montgomery and the vocalist Betty Carter.
His employers leaned on him not only for his lush and muscular playing — often rendered in two-handed block chords so that harmony, melody and rhythm came all at once — but also for his compositions. Tunes like “The Beehive” and “Richie’s Dilemma” were built from Mr. Mabern’s signature composite of harmonic sophistication, blues feeling and sharply punctuated swing rhythm.
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“He was just such a complete musician,” the saxophonist George Coleman, a lifelong musical collaborator with Mr. Mabern,said in a phone interview. “He was always adventurous, and he was always swinging, keeping the crowd pleased.”
At well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a gentle hunch, Mr. Mabern put his physical heft into his music — playing, as he said in a 2015 interview, “from my shoulders, from my whole body.”
Reviewing a concert by Mr. Coleman’s quartet for The New York Times in 2003, Ben Ratliff observed: “Mr. Mabern carpeted each tune with thick chords, almost never letting up until it was time for a bass or drum solo — at which point, instead of trudging through a dull accompaniment, he enacted spare, nicely worked-out arrangements to accent the solo.”
Mr. Mabern came of age in the Memphis music scene of the 1950s, where jazz kept company with other forms of black popular music. In Memphis, he told the French magazine Jazz Hot, the blues “was a way of life.”
He taught himself to play the piano while in high school, largely at the elbow of two local phenoms, the pianists Phineas Newborn Jr. and Charles Thomas. Six months after taking up the instrument, he was playing professionally alongside Mr. Coleman, in gigs that earned him $1 a night.
Many of his friends from those years went on to illustrious careers, and he would work with some of them frequently after he moved to New York City in 1959.
For nearly 40 years Mr. Mabern taught at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where his students included the tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander and the drummer Joe Farnsworth. Both have gone on to become successful bandleaders, and both played in Mr. Mabern’s ensembles for the rest of his life.
“I don’t have to rehearse with those guys,” Mr. Mabern proudly told London Jazz News in 2014. “I just play and they know what to do.”
He is survived by two children, Michael and Roxanne Mabern, and a granddaughter. His sister, Nettie, and his wife of nearly 40 years, Beatrice, died before him.
Harold Mabern Jr. was born in Memphis on March 20, 1936, to Harold and Elnora Mabern. His father worked for middling wages in a lumberyard, but after discovering that his teenage son could play melodies back from memory, he saved up to buy the family a piano, for $60.
At Manassas High School, which had a strong music program, Mr. Mabern’s classmates included Mr. Coleman, the trumpeter Booker Little and the saxophonist Charles Lloyd, all future jazz stars.
After high school Mr. Mabern moved to Chicago to play in a band led by the saxophonist Frank Strozier, another former classmate. He attended classes at the American Conservatory of Music, joined a big band and practiced, he later said, for 12 hours a day.
Prepared to make the leap, Mr. Mabern relocated to New York at age 23, arriving with $5,000 tucked into his shoes. Soon after his arrival, he ran into the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who was on his way to becoming one of the country’s most popular jazz musicians.
“Cannonball knew me from Chicago, saw me and said, ‘Hey, Big Hands, you want a gig?’” Mr. Mabern said in an interview for Jazz at Lincoln Center. “I said, ‘Sure!’”
That night Adderley took him to Birdland, where he introduced Mr. Mabern to a gaggle of other leading jazz musicians. Work soon followed with the likes of Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton. He released his first album, “A Few Miles From Memphis,” in 1968, one of four he would record for Prestige Records.
Mr. Mabern worked mostly as a side musician in the 1970s and ’80s, but a record deal with the Japanese label DIW in 1989 revivified his bandleading career. Over his last three decades, when not teaching, he was often at the helm of his own small groups. He became a regular presence at New York clubs, particularly Smoke. He recorded his last four albums for the club’s label, Smoke Sessions.
Reflecting on his career, Mr. Mabern described himself unpretentiously as “a blues player with chops,” borrowing a phrase from the pianist Gene Harris. “I’m never going to stop being a blues pianist,” he said.
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 24, 2019, Section A, Page 27of the New York edition with the headline: Harold Mabern, 83, Jazz Pianist With Swinging, Lush Style. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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