Harold Mabern was a late starter when it came to jazz piano, but he’s more than made up for it with his longevity.
But within a decade, the self-taught musician was accompanying the cream of the jazz crop in New York, right up to Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, as well as singers Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. When I was 15, I finally got a piano for about $50, but I still really didn’t know what I was doing. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the luxury of playing Chopin Etudes. But maybe one day I’ll sit down and pick some notes out and see what I can do. When I moved to Chicago, that’s when I started putting time into it.
In the last decade, he’s only grown busier, recording as a leader and sideman and touring, frequently with former students whom he taught at William Paterson University in New Jersey. 1: Here’s Mabern in action, playing after giving a little shoutout to some Toronto jazz people: . He’s really one of the sweetest people you would ever meet.” Mac Donald and Mabern are touring this week and next, playing gigs from Sydney, N. In Ottawa, the duo plays Salt Dining Lounge on Preston Street Saturday night.
I tell students the best way to be a great jazz pianist is to play for singers.
And then as you look back, you say, “Oh boy, what a pleasure,” because as you know everybody can’t play the blues. It’s something you can do or can’t do and it has to do with the environment. 2: Here’s a quintet with Mabern on the piano bench, playing his jazz-meets-rhythm-n-blues-meets-blues tune In Chicago, all the musicians could play anybody’s music. We were playing and practising music 12 hours a day.
If Bobby Timmons couldn’t finish the gig with Art Blakey, I could play that music.
If Dizzy [Gillespie] came and Wynton Kelly, my hero, couldn’t make it, I could go in and play the whole book without the music. The day you stop being a student, you might as well pack it in. One night (saxophonist) Cannonball Adderley said, “Hey, Big Hands, you want a gig? Cannonball introduced me to “Sweets” and “Sweets” says, “You want to play? I tell young students now, the old-timers assumed if you’re a musician, you knew everything. Must have been 15 piano players in Birdland that night. I said, “Sshh, don’t nobody say a word because I don’t want to have to do another.” He’s a very challenging player. It’s definitely an enjoyable moment to play with him. This spring, that album won a Juno Award for best jazz album of the year. Mabern, an effusive talker and storyteller who recently returned from a two-week tour in Japan, happily discussed his life as a jazzman; an edited transcript of our conversation follows. “He’s just such a great personality,” Mac Donald says of Mabern.