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Harold Mabern, Pianist Who Mastered Post-Bop, Blues and Memphis Soul, Is Dead at 83

Jonathan Chimene

Harold Mabern, a pianist of percussive fire and boundless soul, with a language that pulled from hard bop, post-bop, Memphis soul and the blues, died on Sept. 17 in New Jersey. He was 83.

The cause was a heart attack, confirmed his publicist, DL Media.

Mabern had a strong yet supple attack at the piano, with a penchant for block chords that combined McCoy Tyner’s modal coloration with the ringing affirmations of the gospel church. His upbringing in Memphis, Tenn., was always present in his style, with unshakable rhythmic assurance and a casually profound connection to the blues.

Reviewing a quartet gig by tenor saxophonist George Coleman for The New York Times in 1986, John S. Wilson wrote that Mabern’s solos were “surging, dancing explosions of huge, hammered chords, slightly softened by the staggered, hanging rhythm that Erroll Garner used or trills that echo Earl Hines.”

For more than 60 years, Mabern was a Rock-of-Gibraltar presence in modern jazz, rising to the first rank of sidemen — with Coleman, guitarist Wes Montgomery, trumpeter Lee Morgan and myriad others — and building a substantial if often undervalued body of work himself.

He made his first album, A Few Miles From Memphis, for Prestige in 1968. Fifty years later, its title track was a featured highlight of his final album, The Iron Man: Live at Smoke. Released on Smoke Sessions, The Iron Man features tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth — younger musicians with whom he worked closely and often over the last quarter-century.

Credit Jonathan Chimene / WBGO
Harold Mabern, with saxophonist Eric Alexander, at Saint Peter's Church

Mabern had Alexander and Farnsworth as students at William Paterson University, where he taught in the jazz studies program for more than 35 years. He appears on more than a dozen albums by Alexander, and they shared a New York bandstand on hundreds of occasions.  

As a composer, Mabern produced a handful of durable post-bop tunes, like “Rakin’ and Scraping,” “Waltzing Westward” and “Aon.” They piled up during the early portion of his recording career, on a run of albums produced by Bob Porter for Prestige in the late 1960s and early-‘70s.

But Mabern’s compositions received wider circulation in other groups, like trumpeter Lee Morgan’s last band, of which he was a crucial part. “Beehive,” from Morgan’s 1970 Blue Note album Live at the Lighthouse, is a spectacular example: a tightly coiled construction that feels perpetually on the edge. (Bennie Maupin, soloing on tenor saxophone, intensifies that feeling.)

“I get joy out of being an accompanist,” Mabern told Jazz Night in America last year: 

It’s like the offensive line in football gets joy out of blocking for the running back. Does that make sense? They don’t care about being the stars. They enjoy doing — well, in that case, literally and figuratively — the dirty work (especially if it’s raining). Because when you can do something to make the soloist happy and proud, you’ve done your job.

Harold Mabern, Jr. was born on March 20, 1936 in Memphis, Tenn., to Harold and Elnora Mabern. He was self-taught on piano — before picking it up, he toiled in cotton fields — but happened to be in the right place at the right time for learning firsthand.

One of his earliest musical acquaintances was saxophonist Frank Strozier, who talked him into enrolling at Manassas High School, where the student body also included George Coleman, trumpeter Booker Little and saxophonist Charles Lloyd. The virtuoso pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., five years Mabern’s senior but still on the scene in Memphis at the time, became a guru and core influence. (Also among Mabern’s originals are two tributes: “Blues for Phineas” and “Strozier’s Mode.”)

After high school Mabern moved to Chicago, where he joined Strozier in a band led by drummer Walter Perkins, the MJT + 3. Mabern made some of his earliest recordings with that group, for the Vee Jay label, before taking a leap of faith and heading to the east coast.

He liked to tell the story of his arrival in New York City, on the unusually cold evening of Nov. 21, 1959, when he was more or less swept onstage at Birdland with trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison. That association opened the first of many doors: Mabern’s dance card in the early ‘60s included work with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, singer Betty Carter, and Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet. He served brief, separate stints with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, and a longer stretch with trombonist J.J. Johnson.

Credit Jonathan Chimene / WBGO

Mabern didn’t shy away from the funkier side of jazz in the ‘70s: he appears on a few CTI albums, by guitarist George Benson and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. But his home was always in an earthier, more swinging vein, which he pursued with peers like Coleman.

His reputation grew especially in Japan, where he released several albums for the DIW label, including Straight Street (1989), with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette, and Mabern’s Grooveyard (1996), with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tony Reedus. Shortly after the turn of the century, he signed to the Japanese label Venus, releasing a half-dozen albums in as many years.

Mabern was a beloved fixture at Smalls, where he made a fine live album in 2012, and Smoke, which served as something like home base. He released four albums on the affiliated Smoke Sessions label, including Afro Blue, in 2014, with singers like Gregory Porter, Kurt Elling and Norah Jones.

Among his many other traits, Mabern had an impish wit, well illustrated by a passing moment on Afro Blue. Jane Monheit is the featured singer on “My One and Only Love,” and her performance punches up the pathos. The song, of course, is a vow of fidelity — but during his piano solo, Mabern sneaks in a quote of Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover,” as if to hint that there might be some action on the side.

Mabern is survived by a son, Michael; a daughter, Roxanne; and a granddaughter, Maya. His wife, Beatrice, died in 2010.  

Among his upcoming appearances was an engagement as a leader tonight, at the Side Door Jazz Club. He played in New York earlier this month with his trio, and on an album-release date for drummer Jimmy Cobb’s This I Dig of You.

Mabern can also be heard a forthcoming album by Coleman, one of his longest associates: The Quartet, due out on Smoke Sessions on Sept. 27. His trademark sensitivity as an accompanist, and his live spark as a soloist, are fully apparent on this version of “Prelude to a Kiss,” which begins in ballad mode and moves into a swinging double time.

On Facebook, Charles Lloyd mourned the loss of Mabern, recalling their time as members of the Rhythm Bombers at Manassas High. “Harold was a scholar of our history, insightful, hilarious, sincere, deep, with intense, boundless energy and inclusive with his warmth,” he wrote. “Before they called him ‘Leading Man,’ his nick name was ‘Big Hands.’ With the broad reach of those hands, he caressed many beautiful chords. He was a storyteller and every note he played had a message.”

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