September 30th, 2019
I'm thinking about Harold Mabern. Harold died unexpectedly at age 83 last Tuesday to the shock of the Jazz community. It felt like Harold would live forever. He was so powerful and robust it seemed inconceivable that he could be mortal and disappear in a flash. But Life reminds us continually of the temporal nature of our reality - all things that come together also come apart and in the end are just memory. In Harold's case a memory of greatness. A greatness that is staggering in its breadth and only after his passing can one begin to assess how great.
The tenor saxophonist and protege of Harold's, Eric Alexander, described him as "an angel on Earth". I heartily concur. I would describe him in Buddhist terms as a "Bodhisattva" - a spiritual teacher manifested here to share his wisdom and to guide others. Harold or "Mabes" as we called him, was the most modest and humble man I've known. A simple and direct man with a true workman's mien. Last Wednesday drummer Joe Farnsworth called me to say that Harold "wasn't feeling well" and that there would be a sub for his regular monthly gig at Smalls. A chill went through me when he told me this. I knew it didn't bode well. I never, in the entire time that I knew Harold Mabern, knew him to miss a gig - never. Farnsworth, a stoic jazz hero, already knew the dreadful news that Harold had passed but kept it to himself at the request of Harold's son. So Joe played the gig with a silent knowledge that he could only share with me the next day.
Harold lived far away in deep Queens, past the Aqueduct Raceway. A commute for him meant a lengthy bus ride and then a lengthy subway ride and yet he never complained. He would arrive for his gigs early and take the time to sit and listen to the other bands. I'd greet him sitting there in his baseball cap and trench-coat. I'd call him "Maestro" and shake his enormous hands. His eyes sparkled with joy and we'd exchange some news about the scene - who was playing, who was talking shit about whom. Harold had no patience for pretense but would always praise musicality. He'd listen intently to young players and assess them with an expert ear. He'd have a kind word for talent and a sharp tongue for any nonsense. Musicians would always gather around him and he would immediately begin to teach. Before his set would begin he'd sit patiently at the piano and discuss the greatness of Clifford Brown and play a Clifford solo note for note. He'd speak of Phineus Newborn (his hero). He'd talk about the special characteristics of Jazz Musicians - their intelligence and ability to do nearly anything. If you could play jazz then you had the mind to do nearly anything else at a high level and he'd be glad to give you examples of some of the subsidiary skills that famous musicians possessed. More than anything Harold had the mind of the eternal student - always in awe of the enormity and greatness of this music. He never stopped practicing, never missed a gig, never stopped giving. Harold Mabern was one of the most generous musicians I've ever know - accessible to everyone, unconcerned about money and just eager to play.
When it was time to hit he'd unleash a fury of groove and sound. Mabes was a tidal wave of force. The audience would be washed away and buffeted by his enormous sound and feeling. The was no denying his greatness and unstoppable energy. This 83 year old man, with a 3 hour commute, would out-play and out-hang musicians a quarter of his age. He was a force to be reckoned with. As a pianist you could only reevaluate your own concept in light of this giant. Other pianists sounded dainty in comparison. But it wasn't just brute force, it was great beauty, it was joy. Harold had tapped some kind of wellspring of Jazz Energy and just turned on the spigot - out it poured, relentless beautiful swinging love.
It's been a tough year. We lost Roy Hargrove who was ill and, although tragic, was expected. We lost Lawrence Leathers, brutally murdered and unexpected. In Harold's case, his passing was unexpected but we can not say tragic. Harold at 83 years accomplished enormous things as a player and a teacher in his long career. We can only celebrate his great life fully lived. Harold Mabern touched lives world-wide. His passing leaves another huge hole in our Jazz wall but what more can one ask from a Jazz Warrior/Bodhisattva? Harold Mabern gave and gave and his generosity enriched our lives and inspired us. We can only be thankful to have known him and been in his presence. Into the Hall of Heros goes this gentle giant and into our memory. Thank you Maestro Mabern. I shed tears of sadness and of gratitude.
So you should view this fleeting world --
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightening in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
Buddha, The Diamond Sutra