By Terrell Kent Holmes (Dec. 21, 2006)
Harold Mabern, one of jazz’s most enduring and dazzlingly skilled pianists, was born in Memphis, a city that produced saxophonists George Coleman and Charles Lloyd, trumpeter Booker Little and pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. Mabern started out as a drummer but, under Newborn’s influence, switched to piano. During his over half-century on the scene as sideman and leader, he has played with such greats as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Blue Mitchell and Sarah Vaughan. He has been a member of the groundbreaking groups the Jazztet, MJT+3 and the Contemporary Piano Ensemble. Mabern also teaches at William Paterson College in New Jersey.
All About Jazz: You started out on drums but then gravitated to the piano.
Harold Mabern: When I got ready to go to high school I couldn’t play any instruments, so I chose the drums in the marching band. Later I started trying to play the trumpet. I could kind of read the notes but I couldn’t get a sound. My band director switched me to the euphonium so I could at least play the marches. Then I met [alto saxophonist] Frank Strozier, who is my closest friend. And he said, “Well, man, why don’t you try to come to my school? which was Manassas High School. So I was able to switch to Manassas and that’s when I got with Frank and George [Coleman] and Booker Little.
[Frank] said, “I have a piano. Why don’t you come by the house? I said, “What am I gonna do, look at it? I didn’t know anything about the piano. We met this great pianist from Memphis named Charles Thomas and he started [teaching] Frank and [me] about bebop. So that’s how I got into that. I never had any piano lessons, I’m solely self-taught.
AAJ: The pianist that put you over the hump, so to speak, was Phineas Newborn, Jr.
HM: Charles Thomas said “If you really wanna play, you should check out this guy. So when I saw Phineas and heard him play, I said “That’s what I want to do. First and foremost, he’s the love of my life when it comes to the piano, he and Ahmad Jamal. They’re my two personal favorites without any hesitation.
AAJ: You’ve played in various band settings. Is there any format that you favor over the others?
HM: Well, they all serve a purpose. [As] a pianist in a quartet you get a chance to grow because you’re taking the place of that other horn. Plus, [with] the quartet or quintet you’ve got to learn how to be a great accompanist. See, I pride myself on being a pretty decent accompanist. To me that’s more important than somebody saying, “Oh, we liked the way you soloed. In a quartet you really have to be strong because if the bass and drums are fighting each other it’s up to the pianist to pick it up.
But my favorite setting is the trio because [within] the trio you can [play] duo, trio or solo. The most challenging is a solo because there are a lot of ways you can play solo piano. You can play esoteric, you can play freeform, and you can play boogie-woogie. When you say you wanna do solo you better know what you’re doing, ’cause the cover’s gonna be completely pulled off of you [and] you gotta have something to stand on. Keith Jarrett has found a formula that really works for him and I say sometime I’d like to try that, but you gotta have a whole lot of patience to approach solo playing the way he does. Most of what he’s doing is [an] impressionistic kind of thing, which is fine.
AAJ: You’ve been playing for about 50 years.
HM: Put five more on there. Make it an even 55. Long time!
AAJ: Right. Are you still managing to learn anything?
HM: Oh, you learn every day. When you stop learning you might as well quit. I remember one time I told Ahmad [Jamal], “You sound so great you don’t need to practice. He looked at me and pointed his finger in my face and said, “Let me tell you something, Harold Mabern, everybody needs to practice. So you always wanna practice, man.
John Coltrane and Booker Little [are] prime examples of what I’m talking about. I went to [New York City club] Smoke to do a photo session, and while I waswaiting for the photographer I was sitting at the piano fooling around with a song, “I’ll Be Around, and I found three new things on that. Now there are times when you can feel stale and stagnant and there are some times when you’re at the piano and you’re not playing the piano, it’s playing you. But every day, even when I’m not practicing, I’m thinking about music. Most of the songs I’ve ever written are away from the piano while I’m walking down the street humming and whistling.
AAJ: Do you have anything new coming out as a leader?
HM: The latest thing I have coming out is a tribute to Harold Arlen called Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Venus Jazz). I’ve always studied him because his music is very bluesy. And you don’t really have to do anything to his music but just go ahead and play it. I don’t think he sat down and said, “I’m gonna be bluesy, it’s just that the music came out that way.
AAJ: What’s the one thing that defines you as a musician?
HM: I’m a pretty decent comper. I think I can comp with the best. I feel that my music swings. I consider myself a blues pianist that understands the philosophy of jazz. That’s the thing that I’m quite proud of, my ability to comp, my ability to understand the importance of the blues. I think I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to knowing quite a few songs, especially the standards and the composers, to the point where, and I’m not bragging, if I wanted to play a set where [all the titles] had “blue in it I could do that. If I wanted to play three sets a night of Richard Rodgers I could do it without repeating. So I’m quite proud of those achievements.
Other than that, I feel that for the time I’ve put into it I haven’t been justly paid for it. I’m talking about simple dollars and cents. That’s the only time when I get a little disgusted. [Something else] that [bothers] me is the way the world is still ignoring George Coleman.
But the one thing that bothers me day in and day out is how the whole music world treated Phineas Newborn, Jr. They persecuted him. Here’s a man that was anything but mediocre. First of all, he played more piano with his left hand than most of us do with our right hand. He played tenor saxophone very well. He played vibes like Milt Jackson. He played trumpet very well. But they said, “Oh, his playing is too cold. How can you say somebody’s too cold [when] he’s playing everything simultaneously [with] both hands? [Listen to] A World of Piano! (Contemporary/OJC, 1961). Anytime you hear him play, none of that stuff was worked out. None of it. He didn’t have to because he had the technique to play whatever he heard in his mind, like Bird, Trane and other people.
AAJ: As far as you can tell, what was the source of that persecution and why has he been so overlooked?
HM: Jealousy, pure and simple. But thank God that people like Ahmad Jamal love and respect him. Tommy Flanagan loved and respected him. Hank Jones loves and respects him. Every day I get a tear in my eye when I think about how they dogged him. So I’m spending the rest of my life trying to dedicate my music to Phineas because he deserved much better than he got. And he was such a good person. I never heard Phineas put down anybody. Never. But they dogged him. So he just went on back to Memphis, heartbroken, sat on the porch and died. That’s it.
I always say, “God don’t owe me a thing but you do, [and I’m] talking about the system. When I look at my bank statement, based on the time, blood, sweat and tears that I’ve put into it, I’ve come up a little short. But other than that I’ve been very blessed to be able to play this music and play with some great people.