Jazz musician Harold Mabern was born in 1936 in Memphis, Tennessee. Surprisingly, his music career initially began on drums. It was not until he reached the age of fifteen that Mabern began teaching himself piano through watching great jazz pianists like Charles Thomas and Phineas Newborn Jr. During his attendance at Manassas High School, Mabern performed locally with fellow Manassas students and budding musicians George Coleman, Charles Lloyd, and Booker Little. After high school, Mabern moved to Chicago with the intent to study piano at the American Conservatory of Music, but financial circumstances prevented him from attending. Instead, he used his time in Chicago for intense practice and constant performance, saying the city “gave [him] the stuff [he] needed—and the confidence.”
Mabern moved to New York City in 1959 at the age of 23. He built a steady reputation as an accomplished jazz pianist while playing in groups like the Jazztet and Lionel Hampton’s big band. After the Jazztet disbanded, he worked as an accompanist for vocalists such as Betty Carter and Johnny Hartman. He says that he learned a lot about piano during his sessions as a vocal accompanist. Mabern says that some of his most challenging work came during his stint in a quartet with guitarist Wes Montgomery, who would call Mabern to jump in on a song in unison or harmony at any second. In 1968, Mabern signed with Prestige Records and released his first album, A Few Miles from Memphis. Mabern went on to record a vast discography of about twenty albums, and he also recorded on countless projects of other jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis. In the early 70s, Mabern worked with acclaimed trumpet player Lee Morgan, playing in his live band as well as appearing on several of his records. Through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Mabern toured all over the world. He found success in Japan especially, where he signed to a label that he released six albums under.
Although Mabern is most acclaimed for his unique, superior piano skills, he also leaves an impression on everyone he meets with his big personality and charming Memphis roots. Mabern attributes much of his success to his time as a budding musician in Memphis spent playing with other esteemed jazz musicians such as Booker Little and George Coleman. He notes that jazz musicians in Memphis were expected to also be able to play rhythm and blues, which he thought was not worth his time back then, but now cites it as a “great joy,” saying “everybody can’t play the blues. You can’t teach that. It’s something you can do or can’t do and it has to do with the environment.”
On Friday, April 6, Harold Mabern will join his former student from William Paterson University, saxophonist Eric Alexander, for a performance in McNeill Hall.
Text by Harlan Hutton