Memphis jazz great Harold Mabern has died
John BeifussUpdated 12:05 a.m. CT Sept. 20, 2019
Memphis-born jazz piano great Harold Mabern. (Photo: Smoke Sessions)
Memphis jazz great Harold Mabern, a product of the city's fertile high school music scene who became a master of soulful "post-bop" piano, has died. He was 83.
He was known for playing with such legends as Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.
Mabern's death was announced Thursday by his current record label, Smoke Sessions Records, based in New York, where Mabern lived much of his adult life. A cause of death was not announced.
Attending Douglass and then Manassas High School (which was famed for its music program), Mabern belonged to an unparalleled generation of Memphis jazz musicians that came of age in the 1950s. That generation included pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., trumpet player Booker Little and saxophonists George Coleman, Frank Strozier and Hank Crawford in its ranks.
Although Mabern studied music at a Chicago conservatory, "I say that I got my knowledge from the university of the streets," he told the Knoxville News Sentinel in a 2012 interview. "You don't have to go to school to learn how to play this music."
After moving to New York, Mabern toured and played with some of jazz's most significant vocalists and instrumental and compositional innovators, including Davis, Rollins, Wes Montgomery and Sarah Vaughan.
He paid tribute to his roots with his first album as a band leader, 1968's "A Few Miles from Memphis," where he was joined by fellow Memphian George Coleman. Another 20-plus albums as a leader followed over the next five decades, including a 1995 tribute to Newborn, "For Phineas," and 1970's "Greasy Kid Stuff!" which showed the influence of funk and fusion music.
In a review of Mabern's 1978 album "Pisces Calling," Marc Myers, author of "Why Jazz Happened," wrote: "Mabern's fingering is commanding and lyrical. His chords aren't merely played but hurled like fistfuls of darts, and there's an urgent snap to his delivery."
In the 1990s, Mabern joined a younger generation of Memphis jazz pianists — including James Williams, Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown — for a series of albums and tours as "The Contemporary Piano Ensemble."
Mabern also taught music at New Jersey's William Paterson University for 36 years, influencing several generations of students and players. "I don't consider myself a teacher," Mabern told the News Sentinel. "I'm an advanced student. You never stop learning. If you stop learning, you might as well go crawl in a hole somewhere."
He performed several times in recent years in his hometown and had been scheduled to appear again locally in January at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.
Mabern made what would be his final appearance in Memphis in April of 2018, where he performed and was honored by Rhodes College’s Mike Curb Institute for Music. He was presented with a Beale Street Brass Note by Curb Institute director and longtime friend John Bass.
“I’m not sure if there is a musician who epitomized or represented Memphis better than Harold Mabern," Bass said. "His playing stretched the boundaries of music, but he always just described himself as a blues man.
“He shared his knowledge and stories with so many people, and I’m grateful that he shared some of them with me," Bass added. "I’ll never forget seeing grand pianos literally shake under his fingers, or his laugh, and I’ll miss him.”