Harold Mabern 1936-2019

As leader, sideman, and accompanist, the big-handed man from Memphis carved a permanent place for himself in the jazz piano pantheon

Harold Mabern
Harold Mabern (photo: Jimmy Katz)

Harold Mabern, a jazz pianist, composer, and educator of indomitable energy and irrepressible good humor who came out of Memphis, Tennessee, to become one of the world’s premier hard bop musicians, died late on the night of September 17 in New Jersey. He was 83 years old.

His death was announced on September 19 by his record label, Smoke Sessions Records. The cause of death was a heart attack.

An autodidact, Mabern taught himself piano almost entirely by ear—in particular, by mimicking his fellow Memphian pianists Charles Thomas and Phineas Newborn Jr.—and joined a large group of his high-school classmates (who included Frank Strozier, George Coleman, Booker Little, Charles Lloyd, and others) in helping to shape hard bop and soul-jazz in the 1960s.

While Mabern was a highly respected bandleader who gigged frequently (and released more than 30 albums) under his own name, he also continued working as a sideman until the end of his career. Over 60 years, his résumé included playing with Harry “Sweets” Edison, Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Wes Montgomery, and Sarah Vaughan, among many others.

Yet although he loved telling stories about his encounters with each of these musical giants, Mabern remained humble about his own high status in the jazz world. “I listened to the right people, I listened to Phineas Newborn Jr. and Ahmad Jamal, plus perhaps God-given talent,” he told British jazz journalist Sebastian Scotney. “I just play the best way I can, whenever I play.”

Born in Memphis on March 20, 1936, Harold Mabern Jr. had his first encounter with music through extended family members who sang in a church choir. The beginning of his own musical path came at 15 when, at a party, he heard a girl play a song on the piano and was able to play it back from memory. However, when he began attending Douglass High School in northeastern Memphis, he was assigned to play drums and baritone horn. After he transferred to Manassas High School, his teacher Matthew Garrett (father of singer Dee Dee Bridgewater) switched him to piano. His father, who worked in a lumberyard, also saved up $60 to buy a piano for his son.

After about six months—during which Mabern mostly learned his instrument by watching Thomas and Newborn and replicating their hand work—he began gigging in Memphis with Coleman, his Manassas classmate, earning $1 a night.

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Mabern developed a style that was noted for its aggression and heavy immersion in the blues, as well as for a percussive tack that existed in both his single-note lines and the thick chords that accumulated in waves as his improvisations continued. “I play from my shoulders, from my whole body,” he explained in 2015. He earned the nickname “Big Hands” for his use of the whole range of the piano.

Offered a scholarship to Tennessee State University, Mabern opted instead to accompany Strozier, another classmate, to the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Upon arrival he found it was too expensive to enroll, so he instead won the piano seat in a South Side big band and took private lessons at the conservatory. He also continued to learn by watching masters work, in this case pianist Ahmad Jamal and bassist Bill Lee. He remained in Chicago for five years, working along the way with Walter Perkins’ MJT + 3.

Mabern moved, again with Strozier, to New York in November of 1959. The night he arrived, as he loved to relate, he went to Birdland and ran into Cannonball Adderley, who had heard him in Chicago. “He saw me and he said, ‘Hey, Big Hands, you want a gig?’” he told an interviewer in 2012. “I said, ‘Sure!’ I thought he meant with him. So he took me down into Birdland … Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison was playing with his quintet with Tommy Flanagan. … Tommy was getting ready to leave and join J.J. [Johnson]’s band.” Mabern sat in for a tune and Edison hired him on the spot, taking him immediately back to Chicago to work.

Next, Mabern went on the road for a year with Lionel Hampton, returning to New York to accompany singers Betty Carter and Johnny Hartman. (Along with garnering attention for his hard-swinging solo style, Mabern concurrently developed a reputation as a highly sensitive vocal accompanist.) He joined the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet for 18 months; did a six-week stand in San Francisco with Miles Davis after Coleman, then a member of Davis’ quintet, recommended him; freelanced with Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, and Hank Mobley; then spent two years with J.J. Johnson. In 1965, Mabern began a long association with trumpeter Lee Morgan, and was playing on the gig at Slugs’ in New York where Morgan was murdered in 1972.

Mabern recorded his first album as a leader, A Few Miles from Memphis, for Prestige in 1968. It was the first of 31 albums. Most of these were made after 1990, with the pianist spending the 1970s and ’80s largely as a freelancer in the studio. However, he continued to perform regularly with a trio that featured bassist Jamil Nasser and drummer Walter Bolden (recording with them on 1978’s Pisces Calling, one of only two albums released under his name in the ’70s). He also worked prolifically with pianist Stanley Cowell, guitarist George Benson, and his Memphis friends Strozier and Coleman—especially the latter, in whose celebrated octet and quartet he played until his death.

The album that effectively relaunched Mabern’s recording career as an artist in his own right—1989’s Straight Street, a trio date featuring bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette—was, aptly, released by the Japanese label DIW; in the second half of his career, Mabern found an especially enthusiastic audience for his music in Japan, and 10 of his subsequent albums would be issued by Japanese record companies.

In the 1990s, Mabern led a trio with bassist Erik Applegate and drummer Ed Thigpen, then another with bassist Nat Reeves and drummer Joe Farnsworth that continued off and on into the 2010s. His musical relationship with Farnsworth, in particular, began when the drummer was his student at New Jersey’s William Paterson University, where Mabern began teaching in 1981. (Ever modest, Mabern referred to himself as an “advanced student.” He retired from his position on the university’s faculty in 2017.) It continued for nearly 30 years, with Farnsworth becoming his go-to drummer over that period.

He also enjoyed a long and fruitful association with another onetime student, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. Mabern’s final album to be released in his lifetime, 2018’s The Iron Man: Live at Smoke, featured a quartet with Alexander, Farnsworth, and bassist John Webber. He had been scheduled to undertake a short tour of duo performances with Alexander in the winter of 2019-20.

Mabern was predeceased by his wife of nearly 40 years, Beatrice Mabern. He is survived by a son, Michael Mabern, of Los Angeles; a daughter, Roxanne Mabern, of New Jersey; and a granddaughter, Maya Mabern, of Boston.

Read a 2006 JazzTimes interview with Harold Mabern and Eric Alexander.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.