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Junior Mance, Impeccable Jazz Pianist and Educator, Has Died at 92

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Jonathan Chimene
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WBGO
Junior Mance receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Jazz Gallery, at The Players Club in New York on June 8, 2015.

Junior Mance, an unfailingly tasteful pianist whose affinity for the blues served him well over a 70-year career, died on Jan. 17 at home in New York City. He was 92.

His wife and manager, Gloria Clayborne Mance, said he died peacefully. Mance had been suffering from dementia in recent years, following a stroke in 2015.

With more than 50 albums to his name, Mance was a prolific solo artist, most at home in a standard trio format. But he was more widely acknowledged as a first-rate accompanist, to trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown; saxophonists Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt; and vocalists Dinah Washington, Joe Williams and Jimmy Scott.

The combination of crisp articulation, bluesy ease and pocket rhythm in Mance’s piano playing is already fully intact on his debut album, Junior, featuring Ray Brown on bass and Lex Humphries on drums. Released on Verve in 1959, it opens with “A Smooth One,” a tune by Benny Goodman and Ernie Royal; listen for the way Mance casually builds momentum, almost tumbling from each chorus into the next.

During the 1960s, his most productive decade, Mance recorded for Atlantic and Capitol Records while circulating widely as a sideman. Among the albums to feature him on piano are Etta Jones Sings, Benny Carter’s original soundtrack to A Man Called Adam, and Aretha Franklin’s Soul ’69.

Mance’s own Live at the Top, featuring a guest turn by David “Fathead” Newman, was recorded at The Village Gate in 1968. Reviewing an engagement in the same room the following year, New York Times critic John S. Wilson suggested that Mance could be poised to become “one of the select group of pianists who reach beyond a jazz following to entertain a popular audience.”

Invoking the examples of Erroll Garner and Earl Hines, two such figures, Wilson noted that Mance often relied on similar rhythmic ostinatos. “Over this he weaves bits of melody that surge and bubble, riffs that prod and poke against the rhythm, swirling flourishes and runs that take delightfully unexpected twists and turns.”

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Credit courtesy of the artist
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courtesy of the artist

For whatever reason, a popular breakthrough à la Garner was not in the cards for Mance, who never became a household name except among jazz aficionados, and especially pianists. In New York he became a fixture at the Knickerbocker Bar and Grill and Café Loup, where some patrons blithely enjoyed their dinner music while others paid rapt attention, having made a pilgrimage.

Mance also settled in as an accomplished jazz educator, mainly at the New School, where his students included pianists Larry Goldings and Brad Mehldau. On social media this week, singer Jazzmeia Horn remembered him as “one of my FAVORITE professors and mentors in this music.”

Julian Clifford Mance, Jr. was born on Oct. 10, 1928 in Evanston, Illinois, and known to his family as “Junior” from an early age. He started on piano at age 5, and began his formal training at 8, encouraged by his father, a boogie-woogie enthusiast. Mance enrolled as a music major at Roosevelt College in Chicago, but the absence of a jazz program influenced his decision to drop out and join Ammons’ band.

Mance also worked with Lester Young from 1949 to ’51, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He nearly served in the Korean War, spared combat only through the deft intervention of Cannonball Adderley, who helped get him transferred out of the infantry and into the 36th Army Band, stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Discharged from the Army in 1953, Mance returned to Chicago, where he became part of the house rhythm section at the Bee Hive Jazz Club. He moved to New York the following year to work with Dinah Washington, and from then on he was busy.

Mance, whose book How to Play Blues Piano was published in 1967, brought an intuitive wisdom, rather than an organized pedagogical method, to his teaching career. “Junior was my first teacher when I arrived in New York in 1988,” Mehldau told Bill Milkowski for a JazzTimes story in 2012. “I wanted to study with him because I really wanted to work on comping behind a soloist, and Junior’s comping was so great on a Dizzy Gillespie record I had been listening to a lot called Have Trumpet, Will Excite! He and I would sit at two pianos and comp for each other.”

After Mance’s stroke in 2015, the onset of Alzheimer’s began a process of deteriorating mental faculties. The story of his perseverance, and the bedrock support within his marriage, forms the subject of a documentary film by Jyllian Gunther. Titled Sunset and the Mockingbird, the film was supported by a Kickstarter campaign; it’s scheduled to premiere later this year.

The JunGlo label, which Junior and Gloria Mance founded together in 2007, released his last several albums, including Live at Café Loup and Letter From Home. His final release, recorded early in 2015 and released through Kickstarter, was titled For My Fans, It’s All About You.