March 20, 1936 – September 17, 2019
Influential Jazz Pianist and Educator Passes Away at Age 83
Legendary jazz pianist Harold Mabern died suddenly on Tuesday, September 17, as a result of a heart attack. He was 83. His death was announced on Thursday by his record label, Smoke Sessions Records.
A product of the fertile Memphis music scene of the 1950s, Mabern enjoyed a career lasting more than six decades. He was renowned as a master of jazz and blues styles and worked with such masters as Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery, George Coleman, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine and Hank Mobley. Mabern once said, “I think of myself as a blues pianist who understands jazz.” In his later years he passed that still-blazing torch onto a new generation, working extensively with such modern-day purveyors as Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein and Christian McBride.
Born on March 20, 1936, Mabern came of age soaking up the music of Memphis masters, in particular the great Phineas Newborn Jr. He attended the city’s Manassas High School, whose music program also boasts such illustrious alumni as Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, Booker Little, Hank Crawford, Isaac Hayes, and tenor titan George Coleman. Mabern and Coleman would enjoy a lifetime friendship and collaboration, stretching from the pianist’s 1968 debut A Few Miles From Memphis to his final session, the saxophonist’s forthcoming release The Quartet.
Mabern moved to Chicago in 1954, where he made his name accompanying the city’s hard-blowing tenorman, including Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan. While there he and fellow Memphian Frank Strozier, joined drummer Walter Perkins’ MJT+3 quintet; in 1959 the group relocated en masse to New York. There Mabern’s career took off, landing him in leading groups like Lionel Hampton’s Big Band, Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet, and a run at the San Francisco club the Black Hawk with Miles Davis in 1963 (reuniting him with Coleman).
The pianist signed to Prestige in 1968, launching his own recording career as a leader, which would continue to run in parallel with his prolific sideman work. He also was a member of two multiple-piano ensembles: the six-keys Piano Choir, led by Stanley Cowell; and the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, founded in tribute to Mabern’s idol, Newborn. He continued actively releasing albums as recently as 2018. His 2014 recording Right on Time was the inaugural release for his most recent record label Smoke Sessions Records. He subsequently released three more albums with the label before his passing: Afro Blue (2015), To Love and Be Loved (2017), and The Iron Man: Live at Smoke (2018). Before this, Mabern released more than 20 albums as a leader/co-leader on labels such as Prestige, High Note, and Columbia; and performed on nearly 100 releases as a sideman.
In 1981, Mabern began teaching at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, a position that would last for a remarkable 36 years. Students of the late venerable educator include Joe Farnsworth, Bill Stewart, Roxy Coss, Freddie Hendrix, Tyshawn Sorey, Mark Guiliana, and Eric Alexander. The connection he forged there with Alexander would lead to one of his most acclaimed collaborations, returning him to prominence in the 1990s and well into the 21st century. Both with and without the saxophonist, Mabern would record extensively with his newfound rhythm section of bassist John Webber and Joe Farnsworth on drums.
“Harold Mabern has lived through half of jazz history as a working pianist and has that history under his fingers,” hailed NPR in 2017. “[He] plays piano like he’s in command and the keys are wired to his brain.”
Mabern is survived by his two children, Michael and Roxanne, and his granddaughter Maya. He was married to his wife, Beatrice, for nearly 40 years before her death in 2010. He was also preceded in death by his sister Nettie and his parents, Elnora and Harold Sr.
Photo Credit: Jimmy Katz