Legendary jazz pianist Harold Mabern, a master of the blues-inflected post-bop and hard-bop . styles, died on Tuesday evening at the age of 83. His passing, the result of a heart attack, was announced by his New York-based label Smoke Sessions Records.
A product of the 1950s Memphis music scene, Mabern attended the city’s Manassas High School, whose music program also produced the likes of Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, Booker Little, Hank Crawford, Isaac Hayes and saxophonist George Coleman. Mabern and Coleman wound up becoming close friends who collaborated with Mabern numerous times, including on Coleman’s forthcoming album, The Quartet.
Born March 20, 1936, Mabern was heavily influenced by Memphis jazz greats — most notably pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. — but he ultimately made his name in Chicago, where he began backing tenor sax players Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordon and playing in hard bop group MJT +3 alongside fellow Memphis musicians Frank Strozier and Walter Perkins.
Mabern’s career took when he moved to New York City at the end of the decade, where he performed with groups including Lionel Hampton’s Big Band and Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet. In 1963, he and Coleman booked a dream gig when they were hired to back Miles Davis at San Francisco jazz club The Black Hawk for a brief run.
Mabern would become a frontman in his own right after signing to New York jazz label Prestige in 1968, with which he led a total of four albums, including A Few Miles From Memphis, Rakin’ and Scrapin’, Workin’ and Wailin’ and Greasy Kid Stuff! In the 1970s, he appeared on a series of live and studio recordings for trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and became a member of two multi-piano ensembles: The Piano Choir led by Stanley Cowell and the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, which was founded in tribute to his hero Newborn.
In 1981, Mabern started a teaching position at William Paterson University in New Jersey, where he instructed the likes of Joe Farnsworth, Bill Stewart, Roxy Coss, Freddie Hendrix, Tyshawn Sorey, Mark Guiliana and Eric Alexander. The latter, a tenor saxophonist, would help Mabern regain prominence beginning in the 1990s by collaborating with him on a slew of releases, a partnership that would continue well into the 21st century.
Throughout his career Mabern would remain a prolific recording artist, releasing over 20 albums as a leader or co-leader, including his most recent album, The Iron Man: Live at Smoke, which was put out by Smoke Sessions in November 2018. But he remained perhaps best known as a brilliant sideman, a role he played on nearly 100 recordings.
“As Mulgrew Miller says, ‘I don’t look left, I don’t look right. I just look straight ahead and keep going,’” Mabern told JazzTimes in 2003. “Just try to be pure at heart, be honest to the music, and the rest will take you.”
Mabern is survived by his children Michael and Roxanne and granddaughter Maya. He was preceded in death by his wife of 40 years Beatrice, his sister Nettie and his parents Elnora and Harold Sr.