A Jazz Giant comes to Bellingham: Harold Mabern

by LINDSAY HILTON

Jazz piano legend Harold Mabern was made to play music. As he himself says, “Music chose me. I didn’t choose it.” Born in Memphis, raised in Chicago, and settled in New York – a trifecta of musical cities – it’s only natural that the blues flow through his veins.
Mabern has been described as “one of the greatest post-bop pianists” of all time. His style of music is hard bop and he is most known for playing with aggressive movements, banging out chords with a vibrant enthusiasm that is unavoidably contagious. Cannonball Adderley used to call him “Big Hands,” and music critic Gary Giddins has said of Mabern “with the wind at his back, he can sound like an ocean roar.”
Though he has had most of his musical success playing as a solid sidekick, he released a few albums of his own as bandleader, the first of which, A Few Miles From Memphis, was released in 1968. Since then he has released 20 albums as leader through various labels and toured tirelessly and collaborated on a wide variety of projects. Mabern worked as an adjunct jazz studies professor at William Paterson University and as instructor at the Stanford Jazz workshop.
He enjoys considerable popularity in Japan, throughout which he toured for 10 months in 1990. Venus, a Japanese record label, produced six of his albums, including Kiss of Fire (2001), his best-selling album. Mabern has been around the block long enough to have played with some of the greatest jazz and blues masters, including Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Rollins, and Lee Morgan. And at 78, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.
Mabern’s musical influences stem from his Memphis roots where, as a child, he was surrounded by blues, jazz and gospel. He is entirely self-taught; at age 15 he heard a young girl playing the piano and was moved by it enough to try and emulate it. But he moved on to drums before being persuaded by jazz trumpeter Matthew Garrett to give the piano another go. Garrett, father to Dee Dee Bridgewater, was one of Mabern’s high school teachers at the time.
Mabern really pursued his love of the piano in the 50s, when he moved to Chicago, playing with Walter Perkins’ MJT+3. While in Chicago Mabern and his group gained notoriety – Miles Davis and Adderley would come out and watch them rehearse – and a bit of commercial success for their music, even churning out some jazz hits.
After Chicago, Mabern made his way to New York where he was offered a gig by Adderley at Birdland. From there his career really took off.