I remember vividly the day I met Harold Mabern. He was the first instructor I encountered when I went to William Paterson University, and I had no idea who the man was. (That was my fault; I was completely ignorant.) But he was my combo instructor, and from that day on it was off to the races. Even without knowing who he was, I knew that this was an important person. I climbed on his back and just took a piggyback ride through life.
He had these harmonic devices that he employed so regularly and that confounded people. They confounded me as well, and I had to figure them out over time. He knew more tunes than anybody I’ve ever met. That wasn’t limited to just the typical jazz-standard repertoire, but the American Songbook and the value of that Songbook are what he hung his hat on. He believed that, sure, you could listen to Wagner’s Ring cycle, but you could get the same information out of a Richard Rodgers 32-bar tune. That’s how strongly he felt about it, and he said so often. He said the same things over and over again, not because he was suffering memory loss but because he wanted to beat it into your brain that it was the truth.
So I learned from him to respect the integrity of the tune, and with that I figured out those substitute harmonies that he played that intimidated the hell out of everyone. Everything he would play worked with the tunes. It worked with your improvisations too; it was like writing a term paper and having someone dot your i’s and cross your t’s and polish your syntax as you go. You just had to have faith. You didn’t need a drummer or bassist: You played with him and you were just fine.
People don’t realize how great a musician he was, but more important, he was a truly decent, helping and nurturing person, even at his own expense. We came home from Japan in 2002. As we were getting off the plane, he told me, “Something’s wrong with Beatrice,” his wife. “I don’t know how available I’ll be going forward.” She was getting into a borderline advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, and from that day, for 10 full years—unless it was something he felt like he absolutely could not miss—he did not play. He did not practice. He just sat every day, day by day, at his wife’s bed. He cared more about sitting next to her and caring for her than doing anything to ensure he had any kind of musical legacy. And I know, because I was waiting that whole time, until Beatrice passed away in 2012, for him to take a gig and he wasn’t taking them.
We were clamoring and begging to get him an NEA Jazz Master award, but that wasn’t going to happen, so John Lee and I put together a tribute at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in New Jersey last year. It was meant to be a “genius” award, a kind of counterweight recognition to what he truly deserved. So we had it all set up … and then Harold died. But we didn’t cancel it; we just turned it from a tribute to a memorial and presented the award to his son and daughter.
He was my greatest teacher, my mentor, inspiration, lighthouse, and when I look back on it, he was my best friend. I know that I’ll never have an opportunity to play music with another person in such a profound way.
[as told to Michael J. West]