NEW YORK CITY, Friday Nov. 14, 2014 — The legendary pianist Harold Mabern steps outside the front door of Mezzrow – the newest club in the West Village jazz scene – to talk about his upcoming gig at The Jazz Room in Waterloo.
The 78-year-old Mabern is among the greatest-living practitioners of straight-ahead jazz piano. His importance and contribution can not be over-stated.
On Sunday, Dec. 7, Mabern plays The Jazz Room with the Toronto-based tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald. Mabern and MacDonald recently cut a CD together, and the early-evening show promises to be among the very best ever heard in the club.
“Well the blues is very important because jazz comes from the blues, not the other way around,” Mabern says in an interview while standing in cold night air. “When I was coming up in Memphis Tennessee we, I hate to use the world hate, but we didn’t like the blues because we wanted to play be-bop.”
Mabern likes to talk a lot about how the past influences the present. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie created be-bop in the late 1940s.
“As a matter of fact Dizzy Gillespie, the co-progenitor, the difference between me and Bird, he said: ‘Bird could play the blues and I couldn’t.’ He right. That’s what Dizzy said. Charles Mingus said: ‘I wish I could write like Duke Ellington and play the blues.’
“You see, so when you can play the blues people all over the world can relate to that,” Mabern says. “And I don’t like to get up and play stuff, get in my own world and play for myself, I play for the people. And that’s what’s important.”
Mabern’s main piano teacher in his hometown of Memphis was Phineas Newborn Jr. After graduating from high school in 1954, Mabern headed for Chicago. There, he fell under the influence of Ahmad Jamal.
“When I got to Chicago there were clubs everywhere and piano players everywhere, and once I found out Ahmad Jamal was working at this club called The Persian Lounge, I knew that’s where I needed to be,” Mabern says.
“I worked clubs everywhere man,” Mabern says. “I worked clubs on the South Side, the North Side, the West Side. Chicago clubs were ubiquitous, and plus you had to play all kinds of styles, you just couldn’t play one.
“You had to play blues, you had to play with singers, you had to play be-bop, you had to play everything. You had to play with big bands. So that was a great four-and-a-half years for me where I really learned a lot just being in that city,” Mabern says.
A woman walks out of Mezzrow carrying an instrument case, and Mabern immediately chats with her.
“That looks like a French Horn, is that a French horn?” Mabern says.
“It is a French horn,” the woman says.
“So who are you with? Symphony orchestra?” Mabern says.
“Symphonies and shows and stuff,” the woman says.
“Beautiful, nothing wrong with that,” Mabern says.
“Nothing wrong at all, but I wish I had your ears,” the woman says.
“Well I wish I could do what you do, so it’s all related, jazz and classical go hand-in-hand,” Mabern says.
“That’s it, that’s it, thank you. What a pleasure to hear you,” the woman says.
“My pleasure, hope to see you again,” Mabern says.
“I was great, fabulous, take care of yourself,” says the woman who walks up the stairs that lead to West 10th Street, and into the cold night air of Greenwich Village. If she wasn’t before, she is clearly now a fan of Mabern and his music.
The big man moved to New York City on Nov. 21, 1959, checked into a hotel and then went to Birdland. Outside the famous club he met Cannonball Adderly (who played on Miles Davis’ famed Kinda Blue album). Adderly introduced Mabern to the trumpet player Harry “Sweets” Edison inside the club. Mabern started working right away, and he never stopped.
As a bandleader he made 22 albums. As a sideman he played on at least 76 albums. He recorded a live CD in the jazz club Smoke at 105th Street and Broadway in 2013. A year earlier he released a CD under the Live at Smalls label. And this year he has a new CD with the Toronto tenor player Kirk MacDonald, who has played The Jazz Room twice this fall.
Mabern was playing with Lee Morgan on a night in February 1972 when the 33-year-old trumpet player was shot to death on stage in Slug’s Saloon in the East Village. Morgan’s common-law wife walked into the club, and emptied a revolver into the talent musician. Jazz musicians in New York City still talk about it.
The audience for Mabern’s recent gig at Mezzrow sat in rapt silence when he played, and hung on every word of his humorous patter between numbers.
“This song was written for five of the greatest jazz musicians ever, I mean really,” Mabern says. “And strange enough all from the state of Pennsylvania.The title is called, if I say it fast it sounds rock-‘n-roll, Bobby-Billy-Jimmy-Lee-Boo. I think it sounds funny. If you can figure out who it was written for I will let you buy yourself another round.”
It was written for Billy Goldstein, Jimmy Merit, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and Boo Hader. In this set Mabern plays pieces by everyone from Cole Porter to Stevie Wonder. He is accompanied on bass by Essiet Essiet.
“I tell students: If you want to be a great composer, study the Great American Songbook because they all have a certain way they write,” Mabern says. “So we are going to do a song by Cole Porter that is not played too much. It is called Begin the Beguine in the Key of C. The bridge is two-five-one in B-flat. See, this is rehearsing.”
The audience laughs hard, but quickly gets quiet as Mabern starts playing. When he finishes the Cole Porter song there is loud applause, and Mabern starts telling another story based on the famous quote from Albert Einstein — “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
“They said Albert Einstein’s wife was really the smart one, and Einstein was kind of dummy by comparison,” Mabern says. “It’s supposed to be true, but check it out, and it really makes sense. She said to him: ‘No Albert, no. Use your imagination.’ He said: ‘Oh, yeah.’ That makes sense why he would say that, imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Jazz musicians deal with imagination all the time, he says.
“Now I am leading up to a point, I hope it’s a point. A friend of mine says: ‘There is no such thing as the greatest.’ I said: ‘Yeah, except when we talk about Charlie Parker and Art Tatum.’ They up there. You don’t debate those two. If you are going to debate Bird and Tatum, you have a problem.”
Bird and Tatum. Hard to get more straight ahead than them.