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Harold Mabern

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Harold Mabern
Mabern in 2012
Mabern in 2012
Background information
Birth nameHarold Mabern Jr.
Born(1936-03-20)March 20, 1936
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
DiedSeptember 17, 2019(2019-09-17) (aged 83)
GenresJazz, soul jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, composer
Years active1950s–2019
LabelsSackville, Prestige, DIW, Smoke Sessions

Harold Mabern Jr. (March 20, 1936 – September 17, 2019)[1] was an American jazz pianist and composer, principally in the hard bop, post-bop, and soul jazz fields.[2] He is described in The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings as "one of the great post-bop pianists".[3][4]

Early life


Mabern was born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 20, 1936.[5] He initially started learning drums before switching to learning piano.[2] He had access to a piano from his teens, after his father, who worked in a lumber yard, saved to buy him one.[6]: 34  Mabern learned by watching and emulating pianists Charles Thomas and Phineas Newborn Jr.[6]: 34  Mabern attended Douglass High School,[7] before transferring to Manassas High School;[8] he played with saxophonists Frank Strozier, George Coleman and trumpeter Booker Little at this time, but was most influenced by Newborn, Jr.[9] In 1954, after graduating, Mabern moved to Chicago, intending to attend the American Conservatory of Music.[9] He was unable to afford to attend music college because of a change in his parents' financial circumstances,[10] but had private lessons there for six months and developed his reading ability by playing with trombonist Morris Ellis' big band.[6]: 34  He also developed by listening to Ahmad Jamal and others in clubs,[10] and "playing and practicing 12 hours a day" for the next five years,[6]: 34  but he remained self-taught as a pianist.[7] Mabern went on to play with Walter Perkins' MJT + 3 and others in Chicago.[11]

Mabern learned orchestration techniques from bassist Bill Lee, and comping and chord voicing from pianists Chris Anderson and Billy Wallace.[6]: 34–35 



Mabern moved to New York City in 1959. According to his own account, he moved there with saxophonist Frank Strozier on November 21, 1959, checked in at a hotel and then went to Birdland, where he met Cannonball Adderley, who asked him if he wanted a gig. Mabern accepted and was shown inside, where trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison, who was looking for a pianist to replace the soon-to-depart Tommy Flanagan, auditioned him and offered him the place.[9] A few weeks later, most of the members of this band then joined Jimmy Forrest for a recording in Chicago that resulted in the albums All the Gin Is Gone and Black Forrest, which were also guitarist Grant Green's debut recordings.[12][13]

Mabern steadily built a reputation in New York as a sideman, playing with, among others, Lionel Hampton's big band in 1960 (including a tour of Europe),[14] the Jazztet for 18 months in the period 1961–62, accompanying vocalists, including Betty Carter, Johnny Hartman and Arthur Prysock, and working with trumpeter Donald Byrd and drummer Roy Haynes.[9][14] After completing a 1963 tour with Haynes, he had a six-week engagement at the Black Hawk in San Francisco with Miles Davis.[8][9] Mabern went on to spend time with J. J. Johnson in 1963–65 after being briefly with Sonny Rollins.[14] In 1965, he also played with Lee Morgan, an association that continued on and off until the night in February 1972 that Morgan was shot dead at Slug's Saloon, with Mabern present.[7] Mabern toured in Europe with Wes Montgomery later in 1965 as part of a band that had been together for around two years before the European tour, traveling as a quartet from gig to gig in one car.[15] From 1965, Mabern also worked with Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Blue Mitchell (1966), Sarah Vaughan, and Joe Williams (1966–67).[11][14]



Mabern's recording career as a leader began in 1968, after he signed for Prestige Records early that year.[16] His first album, A Few Miles from Memphis, featured several of his own originals.[8] Further dates for Prestige were released, and Mabern recorded approximately 20 albums as leader, for many labels. Mabern worked intermittently over a period of four decades with George Coleman, beginning in the 1960s, and including an appearance at the 1976 Newport Jazz Festival.[17][18] From the early 1970s, he worked with trumpeters Clark Terry and Joe Newman, played jazz-pop electric piano with George Benson and Stanley Turrentine, was part of drummer Walter Bolden's trio (1973–74), and led his own trio with Bolden and bassist Jamil Nasser.[14]

Among other musicians Mabern played with from this period were Milt Jackson in 1977,[19] and Billy Harper for a tour of Japan in the same year.[20] Four years later, Mabern toured Europe with George Coleman,[20] and played with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson.[21] The following year, Mabern played with James Moody.[22] There were also performances and recordings with innumerable other musicians, both as leader and sideman. Mabern also worked with two piano-based groups: the Piano Choir, formed and led by Stanley Cowell from the early 1970s and featuring at least six pianists/keyboardists, and the four-player Contemporary Piano Ensemble, the latter being formed in the early 1990s to pay tribute to Phineas Newborn Jr. and touring extensively, including at the Montreal (1991) and Monterey Jazz Festivals (1996).[9][23]

Mabern had a career resurgence after his album Straight Street was a success in Japan in 1989.[24] He visited Japan in 1990 as a member of a ten-pianist group that toured together but played and recorded separately.[25] In the mid-1990s, Mabern toured with and led a trio of bassist Erik Applegate and drummer Ed Thigpen.[14] In later years, he recorded extensively with his former William Paterson University student, the tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander.[26] In 2010, Mabern received the Don Redman Heritage Award.[27]

Mabern's repute in Japan was reflected in his signing by the Japanese label Venus, which resulted in six albums from 2002; Mabern stated in 2004 that his 2002 recording for Venus, Kiss of Fire, featuring Alexander as a guest, was his best seller.[9] A longtime faculty member at William Paterson University (from 1981),[6]: 35 [28] Mabern was a frequent instructor at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. Mabern's stated piano preference was "naturally the Steinway D, but if you can't get a D, any Steinway".[9]

In 2015, Mabern released Afro Blue, "the first of Mabern's two dozen leader dates to showcase the context in which he worked frequently during the 1960s: accompanying vocalists".[6]: 32  "Mabern played in Britain [...] in 2017 and 2018 with a quartet featuring Alexander, and finally for two evenings with his trio at Ronnie Scott's club in May 2019."[24] Mabern, who was a regular at Smoke (jazz club) recorded his final four albums on the club's label Smoke Sessions.[5]

Mabern died of a heart attack in New Jersey on 17 September 2019.[5]

Playing style


Mabern's piano style was described as being "aggressive, very positive, crashing out chords that drop like pile drivers and warming up and down the keyboard with huge, whooping bursts of action", while, at the same time, he showed "a keen sensitivity" as "an extremely perceptive accompanist".[29] Critic Gary Giddins identified some of the characteristics of Mabern's playing as being "blues glisses, [...] tremolos and dissonant block chords", that help to create a style "that marries McCoy Tyner's clustering modality with rippling asides that stem from [Art] Tatum".[30] The influence of Phineas Newborn, Jr. remained noticeable: Mabern employed Newborn's "manner of playing fast lines in a two-handed octave (or two-octave) unison, and uses this device in wildly imaginative ways".[14]

When accompanying vocalists, Mabern stated that he played with "less force, less aggression. I use the soft pedal. You don't voice the chord with the leading tone. You wait for them to sing a phrase, then fill in the space."[6]: 35 



Years refer to the date of recording, unless an asterisk (*) is next to the year; this indicates that it is the date of initial release.

As leader/co-leader

Year recorded Title Label Notes
1968 A Few Miles from Memphis Prestige Mabern's first release as leader
1968 Rakin' and Scrapin' Prestige Mabern also plays electric piano
1969 Workin' & Wailin' Prestige Mabern also plays electric piano
1970 Greasy Kid Stuff! Prestige Sextet, with Lee Morgan (trumpet), Hubert Laws (flute, tenor sax), Buster Williams (bass), Idris Muhammad (drums), Joe Jones (guitar; 1 track)
1978 Pisces Calling Trident Trio, with Jamil Nasser (bass), Walter Bolden (drums)
1985 Joy Spring Sackville Solo piano; in concert
1989 Straight Street DIW Most tracks trio, with Ron Carter (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums); one track solo piano
1991–92 Philadelphia Bound Sackville Duo, with Kieran Overs (bass)
1992 A Season of Ballads Space Time Trio, with Ray Drummond (bass), Alan Dawson (drums); album shared with Donald Brown and Charles Thomas trios
1992–93 The Leading Man DIW Some tracks trio, with Ron Carter (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums); some tracks with a guest, Bill Mobley (trumpet, flugelhorn), Bill Easley (alto sax), Kevin Eubanks (guitar), Pamela Baskin-Watson (vocals); one track piano solo; later Columbia issue has some different trio tracks, with Christian McBride (bass), DeJohnette (drums)
1993 Lookin' on the Bright Side DIW Trio, with Christian McBride (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums)
1995 For Phineas Sackville Duo, with Geoff Keezer (piano); in concert
1996 Mabern's Grooveyard DIW Trio, with Christian McBride (bass), Tony Reedus (drums)
1999 Maya with Love DIW Trio, with Christian McBride (bass), Tony Reedus (drums)
2001 Kiss of Fire Venus Trio, with Nat Reeves (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); Eric Alexander (tenor sax) as guest
2003 Falling in Love with Love Venus Trio, with George Mraz (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums)
2003 Don't Know Why Venus Trio, with Nat Reeves (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums)
2004 Fantasy Venus Trio, with Dwayne Burno (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums)
2005 Somewhere Over the Rainbow Venus Trio, with Dwayne Burno (bass), Willie Jones III (drums)
2006 Misty Venus Solo piano
2012 Mr. Lucky HighNote Most tracks quartet, with Eric Alexander (tenor sax), John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); one track trio, without Alexander; one track solo piano
2012 Live at Smalls SmallsLive Trio, with John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); in concert
2013 Right on Time Smoke Sessions Trio, with John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); in concert
2014 Afro Blue Smoke Sessions With Eric Alexander (tenor sax), John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); plus guests Jeremy Pelt (trumpet), Steve Turre (trombone), Peter Bernstein (guitar), Alexis Cole, Kurt Elling, Norah Jones, Jane Monheit, Gregory Porter (vocals)
2017* To Love and Be Loved Smoke Sessions Most tracks quartet, with Eric Alexander (tenor sax), Nat Reeves (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums); some tracks quintet, with Freddie Hendrix (trumpet) or Cyro Baptista (percussion) added; one track solo piano
2018 The Iron Man: Live at Smoke Smoke Sessions Quartet, with Eric Alexander (tenor sax), John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); in concert
2018 Mabern Plays Mabern Smoke Sessions Sextet, with Eric Alexander (tenor sax), Vincent Herring (alto sax), Steve Davis (trombone), John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); in concert[31]
2018 Mabern Plays Coltrane Smoke Sessions Sextet, with Eric Alexander (tenor sax), Vincent Herring (alto sax), Steve Davis (trombone), John Webber (bass), Joe Farnsworth (drums); in concert[32]

As sideman

Year recorded Leader Title Label
1959 Jimmy Forrest All the Gin Is Gone Delmark
1959 Jimmy Forrest Black Forrest Delmark
1960 Frank Strozier MJT + 3 Vee-Jay
1961 Art Farmer Perception Argo
1962 The Jazztet Here and Now Mercury
1962 The Jazztet Another Git Together Mercury
1962 Frank Strozier March of the Siamese Children Jazzland
1963 Jimmy Heath Swamp Seed Riverside
1963 Roland Kirk Reeds & Deeds Mercury
1963 Roland Kirk The Roland Kirk Quartet Meets the Benny Golson Orchestra Mercury
1964 Betty Carter Inside Betty Carter United Artists
1964 J.J. Johnson Proof Positive Impulse!
1965 Jackie McLean Consequence Blue Note
1965 Hank Mobley Dippin' Blue Note
1965 Lee Morgan The Gigolo Blue Note
1965 Freddie Hubbard The Night of the Cookers Blue Note
1965 Freddie Hubbard Blue Spirits Blue Note
1965 Wes Montgomery Kings of the Guitar Beppo
1965 Wes Montgomery Jazz 625 Vap
1965 Wes Montgomery Solitude BYG
1965 Wes Montgomery Belgium 1965 Rounder Vestapool
1966 Blue Mitchell Bring It Home to Me Blue Note
1967 Buddy Terry Electric Soul! Prestige
1968 Joe Jones My Fire! Prestige
1970 Lee Morgan Live at the Lighthouse Blue Note
1970 Idris Muhammad Black Rhythm Revolution! Prestige
1970 Gene Ammons The Black Cat! Prestige
1970 Terumasa Hino Alone Together Columbia
1971 Lee Morgan The Last Session Blue Note
1971 Stanley Turrentine The Sugar Man CTI
1973 Stanley Turrentine Don't Mess with Mister T. CTI
1973 George Benson Body Talk CTI
1973 Tiny Grimes Profoundly Blue Muse
1973 The Piano Choir Handscapes Strata-East
1974 Frank Foster The Loud Minority Mainstream
1974* George Freeman Man & Woman Groove Merchant
1975 The Piano Choir Handscapes 2 Strata-East
1976 Frank Foster Here and Now Catalyst
1976 Frank Strozier Remember Me SteepleChase
1977 Frank Strozier What's Goin' On SteepleChase
1977 Billy Harper Soran-Bushi, B.H. Denon
1977 George Coleman Revival Catalyst
1978 Walt Bolden Walt Bolden Nemperor
1978 Richie Cole Keeper of the Flame Muse
1978 Louis Smith Just Friends SteepleChase
1979 Louis Hayes Variety Is the Spice Gryphon
1983 Lee Willhite First Venture Big Tampa
1985* George Coleman Manhattan Panorama Theresa
1987 George Coleman At Yoshi's Theresa
1989 Contemporary Piano Ensemble Four Pianos for Phineas Evidence
1990 100 Gold Fingers Piano Playhouse 1990 Absord Music Japan
1990 Lewis Keel Coming out Swinging Muse
1992 Eric Alexander Straight Up Delmark
1993 Eric Alexander Up, Over & Out Delmark
1993 Donald Brown Cartunes Muse
1993 Contemporary Piano Ensemble The Key Players Sony
1993 Cecil Payne Cerupa Delmark
1996 Cecil Payne Scotch and Milk Delmark
1996 Andy Goodrich Motherless Child Delmark
1997 Eric Alexander Mode for Mabes Delmark
1997 Steve Davis Crossfire Criss Cross
1997 Jim Rotondi Jim's Bop Criss Cross
1998 Cecil Payne Payne's Window Delmark
1998 George Coleman I Could Write a Book: The Music of Richard Rogers Telarc
1999 Eric Alexander Live at the Keynote Video Arts
1999 Eric Alexander The First Milestone Milestone
2000 Eric Alexander The Second Milestone Milestone
2000 Cecil Payne Chic Boom: Live at the Jazz Showcase Delmark
2001 Eric Alexander Summit Meeting Milestone
2002 Eric Alexander Nightlife in Tokyo Milestone
2003 Archie Shepp Deja Vu Venus
2004 Eric Alexander Dead Center HighNote
2004* Joe Farnsworth It's Prime Time Village
2004 Ned Otter Powder Keg Two & Four
2005 Eric Alexander It's All in the Game HighNote
2006 Mike DiRubbo New York Accent Cellar Live
2009 Eric Alexander Revival of the Fittest HighNote
2009 Eric Alexander Chim Chim Cheree Venus
2010 Eric Alexander Don't Follow the Crowd HighNote
2011 Joe Farnsworth Super Prime Time Sony
2012 Eric Alexander Touching HighNote
2013 Eric Alexander Blues at Midnight Venus
2013 Eric Alexander Chicago Fire HighNote
2014* Eric Alexander Recado Bossa Nova Venus
2015 Eric Alexander The Real Thing HighNote
2015* Steve Davis Say When Smoke Sessions
2016 Eric Alexander Second Impression HighNote
2018 Cory Weeds Live at Frankie's Jazz Club Cellar Live
2019 George Coleman The Quartet Smoke Sessions
2019 Jimmy Cobb This I Dig of You Smoke Sessions


  1. ^ West, Michael J. Harold Mabern 1936-2019
  2. ^ a b Feather, Leonard; Gitler, Ira (2007) The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. p. 425. Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Cook, Richard; Morton, Brian (2008) The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (9th ed.). p. 1136. Penguin.
  4. ^ Commercial Appeal "Memphis jazz great Harold Mabern has died"
  5. ^ a b c Russonello, Giovanni (24 September 2019). "Harold Mabern, Jazz Pianist With a Lush Sound, Dies at 83". The New York Times.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Panken, Ted (July 2015) "A Million Dollars' Worth of Experience". Down Beat.
  7. ^ a b c Jonah Jonathan's video interview with Harold Mabern on YouTube.
  8. ^ a b c Johnson, David Brent (March 18, 2011) "A Few Miles from Memphis: Harold Mabern, the Early Years". Indiana Public Media.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h Shanley, Mike (April 2003) "Harold Mabern: The Accompanist" Archived 2013-11-29 at the Wayback Machine. Jazz Times.
  10. ^ a b Gilbert, Andrew (December 2006) "Harold Mabern and Eric Alexander: Getting Schooled". Jazz Times.
  11. ^ a b MJT + 3 at allmusic
  12. ^ Yanow, Scott "Jimmy Forrest: All the Gin Is Gone: Review". AllMusic. Retrieved December 26, 2013.
  13. ^ "Grant Green Catalog". Jazzdisco.org Retrieved December 26, 2013.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Rinzler, Paul; Kernfeld, Barry "Mabern, Harold(, Jr.)". The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (2nd ed.). Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed June 28, 2013. (Subscription required.)
  15. ^ Fitzgerald, Tim "625 Alive: The Wes Montgomery BBC Performance Transcribed" pp. vii–ix.
  16. ^ Billboard (April 06, 1968) "Signings". Billboard. p. 14.
  17. ^ Balliett, Whitney (2000) Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954–2000. p. 473. Granta Books.
  18. ^ Friedwald, Will (August 13, 2010) "August Sounds Embrace the Sweltering City" Wall Street Journal [online edition].
  19. ^ Ford, Robert (March 26, 1977) "Talent in Action" Billboard.
  20. ^ a b Carr, Ian; Fairweather, Digby; Priestly, Brian (1995) Jazz: The Rough Guide. p. 398. The Rough Guides.
  21. ^ Wilson, John S. (August 08, 1981) "Jazz 4: Eddie Vinson" The New York Times. p. 28.
  22. ^ Stokes, W. Royal (May 15, 1982) "Moody's Sizzling Saxophone & Flute". The Washington Post.
  23. ^ Contemporary Piano Ensemble". AllMusic.
  24. ^ a b "Harold Mabern, jazz pianist who accompanied the greats of the 1960s including Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins: Obituary". The Daily Telegraph. October 2, 2019. Retrieved September 6, 2020.
  25. ^ "100 Gold Fingers: Piano Playhouse 1990". AllMusic.
  26. ^ All About Jazz: Harold Mabern and Eric Alexander: The Art of Duo (May 4, 2005).
  27. ^ Arnold, Tiffany (June 24, 2010) "Jazz Giants to Be Recognized at Don Redman Heritage Awards & Concert"[permanent dead link]. herald-mail.com
  28. ^ Ross, Jon (October 2012) "William Paterson University: 40 Years of Trailblazing Jazz Education". Down Beat. p. 134.
  29. ^ Wilson, John S. (March 03, 1977) "Jazz: Quartet with Keen Pianist". The New York Times. p. 29.
  30. ^ Giddins, Gary (January 20, 1998) "Beale Street Talks". The Village Voice.
  31. ^ Considine, J. D. (April 2020). "Harold Mabern: Mabern Plays Mabern". DownBeat. Vol. 87, no. 4. p. 48.
  32. ^ "Mabern Plays Coltrane". Smoke Sessions Records. Retrieved 20 November 2021.