Junior Mance: Saved By A Cannonball
An overdue ovation for a respected piano master
If it’s Sunday in New York, you’ll find Junior Mance at Café Loup, an intimate hang in the heart of Greenwich Village with no cover charge. Six nights a week it’s a charming French bistro, but on Sunday evening it becomes Junior’s place. The 83-year-old piano master has held court there since June of 2006. It’s just a couple of blocks from the Manhattan apartment where Mance has resided for the past 37 years, and just down the block from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, where he taught for 23 years before retiring in 2011.
“Junior was my first teacher when I arrived in New York in 1988,” recalls Brad Mehldau. “I wanted to study with him because I really wanted to work on comping behind a soloist, and Junior’s comping was so great on a Dizzy Gillespie record I had been listening to a lot called Have Trumpet, Will Excite! He and I would sit at two pianos and comp for each other.”
Adds Larry Goldings, another of Mance’s prized pupils from the New School, “Though he lacked traditional teaching experience, Junior taught more by example, and that’s precisely what I wanted when I moved to New York, to come into close contact with the great, experienced players. Junior is so close to the source of the music.”
On any given Sunday night at Café Loup, Mance can be heard alongside bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Kim Garey, swinging through a set of classic Ellington and Monk tunes along with numerous standards, lush ballads and blues-soaked originals like “Holy Mama,” “Letter From Home” and “The Uptown,” or his exhilarating, gospel-tinged “Jubilation.” Their chemistry is documented on Letter From Home, a 2011 live recording from Café Loup featuring the core trio augmented by two outstanding young improvisers and former students of Mance’s at the New School, Ryan Anselmi on tenor sax and Andrew Hadro on baritone sax. It’s the latest in a string of three potent live recordings from Café Loup that have come out on Mance’s own label, JunGlo, which he formed in 2007 with his wife of 12 years, Gloria Clayborne Mance.
Like fellow octogenarian Roy Haynes, whom he played with in Lester Young’s band back in 1949, Mance keeps rolling along like he has discovered the fountain of youth. “Junior is one of the most generous-spirited musicians I have ever worked with,” says drummer Garey. Bassist Tanaka, who began working regularly with Mance in 2005, adds, “Whatever the occasion, whether it’s a restaurant gig, jazz club or concert hall, his enthusiasm for the music is amazing and contagious.”
Seated on a couch in the apartment he shares with his wife, just a few feet from the Steinway Model C piano they both agreed to purchase in lieu of an extravagant honeymoon, Mance regales a visitor with tales of Prez, Bird, Dizzy, Dinah, Moody, Jug, Jaws, Cannonball—all the greats he played with back in the day. In fact, Julian Clifford Mance credits another Julian, Cannonball Adderley, with saving his life 60 years ago. “Because of him, I’m still here,” says the Evanston, Ill., native.
It was during the Korean War. Mance, in basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., was just two weeks away from shipping out with his company for a deadly encounter with the enemy. But through a clever bit of Sgt. Bilko-like chicanery, Cannonball was able to get Mance transferred out of the infantry and into the 36th Army Band, where he remained—safely in Kentucky—for the duration of his time in the service.
“I wasn’t able to join the Army Band because I didn’t play a marching instrument,” Mance explains. He had snuck off between guard duty shifts one time to jam with Adderley and the group, and apparently made a big impression. “I remember the first tune we played was Neal Hefti’s ‘Splanky,’ and Cannon dug what I was playing so he gave me a few extra choruses to solo on. I ended up playing the rest of the set with the band before my break was up and I had to go back to guard duty. And Cannon said to me, ‘You’re coming into the band, right?’ I explained the problem of not playing a marching instrument and he said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.’
“Next morning I’m back in basic training, crawling through the mud on the infiltration course about the length of a football field. And when I get to the end of it I see this jeep rolling up to the first sergeant. I look … and it’s Cannonball in the jeep! He goes up to the first sergeant and hands him a piece of paper. The first sergeant glances at the paper, then hands it back to Cannonball and he says, ‘Mance, take off! They want to see you at headquarters.’ And I thought, ‘Whoa! I hope I haven’t messed up or something.’ So I jump into the jeep with Cannonball and I say, ‘Cannon, what’s happening?’ And he says, ‘Shhh. Let’s wait until we’re out of earshot.’ So we rode awhile and then he explains that he got the company clerk to type up some phony orders for me to come and audition for the band commander, who was a warrant officer due to get out soon. And I said, ‘What? OK. But I hope we all don’t go to jail.’ And Cannon says, ‘Trust me, trust me.’”
Not only did Mance impress the band commander at that audition, but Adderley also swung it so that the young pianist would replace an outgoing company clerk, since he was the only other soldier in the company who could type. “And that got me out of basic training and into the 36th Army Band,” he recalls.
But it’s the end of Mance’s tale that brings chills. “One day I finished my work early and I’m just walking around the base,” he begins. “I walked past the Army hospital and saw this guy sitting there with no legs in a wheelchair. And he says, ‘Mance?’ I recognized his face. We were in basic training together. That outfit we were in had 200 people in it and they had been shipped en masse to Korea. They were part of the amphibious operation that hit the beach. And he says to me, ‘They were waiting for us. As soon as we started running for the shore, machine gun fire just opened up on us. I got my legs blown off getting off the ship. Only about five or six of us survived. I was one of the lucky ones.’ And that hit me like a ton of bricks. Because I wasn’t the greatest soldier in the world, I probably would’ve been one of those that died that day. And when I told Cannonball about it, I said, ‘Because of you, I’m still here.’ And we remained best of friends for the rest of his life.”
In 1953 Mance was discharged from the Army. He returned to Chicago, where he worked in the house rhythm section at the Bee Hive jazz club, backing Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and others. After a year at the Beehive, he came to New York to work with jazz and blues diva Dinah Washington. “I had previously worked with Joe Williams in Chicago, which is where I learned that you don’t get in the way of the vocalist,” says Mance. “But it was a blessing to work with Dinah, who was one of my mother’s favorites. She just gave me the keys to play in and off we went.”
Mance later reunited with Adderley in 1956 for some recordings on the Emarcy and Mercury labels (In the Land of Hi-Fi and Cannonball’s Sharpshooters, respectively). In 1958, after the Adderley quintet broke up for lack of gigs and Cannonball went off with the Miles Davis sextet, Mance joined up with Dizzy Gillespie, who became a major mentor. “Dizzy was my music school,” he says. “Once I joined his band, he said, ‘Come by anytime,’ so I used to walk to his house in Jackson Heights from where I lived in nearby East Elmhurst. … Man, I was there almost every day, learning stuff about music, about the music business, about everything.”
In 1959, the same year he appeared on Gillespie’s Have Trumpet, Will Excite! , Mance released his first recording as a leader: Junior, on Verve, featuring Ray Brown on bass and Lex Humphries on drums. Its followup, 1961’s At the Village Vanguard, on Jazzland, with bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley, featured the boppish “Looptown” and his signature “Smokey Blues.” He cut two significant albums in 1962: Junior’s Blues with bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Mickey Roker and Happy Time with Roker and bassist Ron Carter.
Mance’s expansive discography of 50-plus albums as a leader includes a few oddities, such as 1967’s Harlem Lullaby (performed on harpsichord), 1969’s Buddy and the Juniors (an acoustic blues outing with guitarist Buddy Guy and harmonica ace Junior Wells) and 1970’s With a Lotta Help from My Friends (a funk-fusion outing that featured drummer Billy Cobham, guitarist Eric Gale and electric bassist Chuck Rainey). He recorded several duets through the early ’80s with bassist Martin Rivera, and released two superb solo piano outings on the Sackville label, 1988’s Junior Mance Special and 1996’s Jubilation.
Mance released a string of recordings through the ’90s as part of the Floating Jazz Festival Trio (with bassist Keter Betts and drummer Jackie Williams). These were live recordings, captured on the S.S. Norway under the auspices of the Chiaroscuro label’s Hank O’Neal, featuring such special guests as Benny Golson, Joe Temperley, Red Holloway, Lou Donaldson and Arturo Sandoval. But since 2007, Mance’s soulful artistry has been showcased exclusively on his own JunGlo label. And his smiling visage can always be found on Sunday nights at Café Loup.
“Junior is such a spiritual person,” says Mehldau. “[W]hat comes through spending time with him is his serenity and inner peace, and it’s a real inspiration and joy to be around.”