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Julian “Junior” Mance 1928–2021

The respected pianist and educator always stayed true to the blues

Junior Mance
Junior Mance

Junior Mance, a pianist, composer, and educator known for his earthy, bluesy style, died January 17 at his home in New York City. He was 92.

His death was announced by his wife of 22 years, the former Gloria Clayborne, in a January 17 Facebook post. Cause of death was not disclosed; however, for several years Mance had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

A representative of the Chicago school of jazz, Mance began his career in the Windy City, working at 18 years old with saxophonist Gene Ammons. He soon moved on to play with Lester Young, Cannonball Adderley, Dinah Washington, and Dizzy Gillespie. His career as a leader commenced in the late 1950s, when he formed his first trio and made his opening entries in a catalog that eventually extended to over 60 albums. He was also a member of the 10-pianist ensemble 100 Golden Fingers, an outfit that had its primary success in Japan during the 1990s.

Mance’s foremost musical love is best expressed in the title of his 1967 book, How to Play Blues Piano. However, his reputation was that of a wide-ranging and confident stylist who was thoroughly versed in bebop and the standard repertoire; indeed, his major professional break came when he replaced Bud Powell in Lester Young’s band in 1949. Even in such contexts, however, Mance tended to insert generous shares of blues and soul into his playing, such that even postwar pop tunes like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (on his 1976 album Holy Mama) sounded like dyed-in-the-wool African-American vernacular music in his hands.

In addition to writing a piano instruction book, Mance was a noted educator, teaching for 23 years at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. “He was sincere and generous with his knowledge,” said pianist and club owner Spike Wilner, a student of Mance’s in the late 1980s. “He was a legendary pianist and a wonderful and warm person.”

Julian Clifford Mance, Jr. was born October 10, 1928 in Evanston, Illinois, to Julian Sr., a dry cleaner, and Marie McCollum, a homemaker. From childhood, the younger Mance was known as “Junior” to distinguish him from his father. The elder Mance was an avocational piano player, keeping an upright in the family house. He taught his five-year-old son to play stride and boogie-woogie. Junior was an avid pupil with, as he told interviewer Marc Myers in 2011, “a hunger for music.” When he was 10, he took his first paying gig in a Chicago club.

Enrolling at 18 in Chicago’s Roosevelt College, Mance quietly ignored his mother’s entreaties to take pre-med classes and registered for music classes. Even these, however, lasted less than a full year, both because jazz was forbidden on campus (a professor who found him playing stride in a practice room suspended him for a week) and because Mance found work accompanying Gene Ammons (with whom he made his first records). In 1949, Lester Young heard Mance playing with Ammons in Chicago and invited him to join Young’s band; the pianist went with the saxophonist to New York, where he remained for several months and recorded with Young on a Savoy session before returning to Chicago in the fall.

Mance was drafted into the Army in 1951 and had orders to go to Korea after basic training at Fort Knox. However, while in training he met a fellow recruit, saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who helped him get a job as the company clerk so he could join Adderley’s company band. Discharged in 1953, he returned to Chicago and became the house pianist at the Bee Hive club on the South Side, where he played behind Charlie Parker for four weeks.

By 1954, Mance had saved enough money to move to New York, where he soon got a job in Dinah Washington’s band. After two years, he left Washington to join Adderley; two years after that, when the Adderley band broke up, Mance was hired by Dizzy Gillespie. Mance considered his time in Gillespie’s quintet, during which he toured Europe and accompanied the bebop pioneer in a television appearance with Louis Armstrong, to be among the highlights of his career.

While still with Gillespie in 1959, Mance recorded his first solo album—a trio date with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Lex Humphries—released by producer Norman Granz on the Verve label as Junior. However, it wasn’t until 1961, after Gillespie and a short stint with the Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis/Johnny Griffin ensemble, that Mance formed a working trio with Bob Cranshaw and Mickey Roker. It was at that point that he became a full-time leader, working with the trio both on its own and in accompaniment to stars like Joe Williams and Ben Webster. He quickly became a prolific and in-demand attraction in concert and on record. The trio’s personnel evolved frequently, with Mance the only constant; however, beginning in 1970, the pianist enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with bassist Martin Rivera, who became a frequent duo partner as well as a regular presence in Mance’s trios.

In 1988, Mance joined the faculty of the New School, where he remained until retirement in 2011. In addition to classes and private lessons in piano, he taught classes in blues and blues ensembles, solidifying his association with that sound and style.

In 1990, he joined 100 Golden Fingers, the 10-piece piano ensemble that also included Kenny Barron, Ray Bryant, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Duke Jordan, Roger Kellaway, John Lewis, Dave McKenna, and Marian McPartland (with many others joining in subsequent tours), along with Mance’s onetime triomate Bob Cranshaw on bass and Grady Tate on drums, touring Japan every two years to considerable acclaim and success. Relatively stationary after the final 100 Golden Fingers tour in 2001 (albeit with occasional trips to Canada, England, and Japan), Mance settled into a weekly Sunday-night residency at Greenwich Village’s Café Loup, which he held from 2007 to his retirement from performing in 2016 due to his worsening Alzheimer’s.

Read Bill Milkowski’s Overdue Ovation for Junior Mance from the January/February 2012 issue of JazzTimes.

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.