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Jazz Night in America Toasts Harold Mabern, Stalwart Accompanist, At 82

Alan Nahigian
Courtesy of the artist
Pianist Harold Mabern, a stalwart accompanist stepping into the spotlight

Harold Mabern has never had any hang-ups about not being the center of attention. "I get joy out of being an accompanist," the pianist affirms, likening himself to an offensive lineman on a football team. "When you can do something to make the soloist happy and proud," he says plainly, "you've done your job."

Small wonder that Mabern, who recently turned 82, has been one of jazz's stalwart accompanists over the last 60 years, a valuable yet unflashy asset for everyone from Wes Montgomery to Sarah Vaughan. In this episode of Jazz Night, we'll explore some of that history, including Mabern's early years in Memphis and his deep connection with Lee Morgan — which ended with the trumpeter's shocking death at 33.

But we'll also point the spotlight squarely on Mabern as a composer and bandleader — focusing on a recent hit at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, where he led a trio with bassist Nat Reeves on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums.

Among the tunes in the set are "Edward Lee" and "Bobby, Benny, Jymie, Lee, Bu," both bearing dedications to Morgan. We'll also have some fun with a digression about the art of the musical quote — another of Mabern's many talents, which have a way of hiding in plain sight.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.