Harold Mabern was a jazz giant with a ‘wonderful spirit’

Harold Mabern, a jazz giant considered to be “one of the great post-bop pianists,” died on Sept. 17, 2019. He was 83.

The jazz pianist, composer and educator had a great energy, and a great sense of humour as well. Born and raised in Memphis, he made his way to Chicago and then to New York, where he had only enough time to put his bags in his room before he got called up for a gig. From there, he had a long and storied career playing with big names like Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson, Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Wes Montgomery and Sarah Vaughan, among many others.

Toronto-based musician and educator Kirk MacDonald was a good friend and collaborator of Mabern. He joined us to pay tribute to the late jazz giant, and to look back on a man who was a great musician and an even better person.

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My deep condolences to you. I know you guys worked together for a number of years.

Thank you very much. I’d like to offer my condolences to the Mabern family and all those who knew Harold. It’s a very sad day for jazz fans around the world.

He was a fun guy, filled with so many stories. Is there something that defines Harold Mabern in your mind?

His spirit was unbelievable. His generosity was really something to see. I’d been in a lot of different situations with him. We’d travelled together quite a bit. He always gave 100 per cent to everything, and that’s on the bandstand and off. You would finish the gig and he would be hanging out at the piano, he was accessible to everyone. He really loved people. He just brought such a special energy to everything he did. He was great with students, very, very generous with his time. He was always like that on the bandstand as well. I’d been on the road with him, and he never complained. When it was time to play, he was there in the biggest way you could imagine. Just a wonderful, wonderful spirit [with] a real love of life and music … He was really a remarkable man.

How did your relationship start?

It goes way back. Many years ago I had the good fortune of studying a little bit with George Coleman — we’re going back about 40 years — and I knew that George and Harold were very tight. I think the first time we worked together was probably in 1984 or ’85 … We played quartet with Terry Clarke and Neil Swainson, and it was great. I had been a huge fan of his for many, many years. We kept in touch after that. About five years ago, I had brought him up as a guest artist at the summer workshop I was involved with at Humber College. We did some playing around that and recorded a record called Vista ObscuraThrough that we started doing some touring. We’ve done about four or five tours together in Canada, and we’ve done some dates together in the States. So, I’d gotten to know him quite well over the last five or six years. We had some wonderful times together musically and personally. He’s just such a wonderful human being, and anyone that’s had any kind of contact with him, his spirit is very uplifting on every level. And then of course there’s the amazing musicianship, which speaks for itself. It was a real blessing for me to have had the opportunity to work with him so closely.

What lasting memory will you have of him as a player?

He was all about the music. He was all about supporting people. It’s exactly how he lived his life. He was such a generous, gracious man, and that’s the way he approached music. You look at the talent and experience that he had as a player … He maintained an international career playing with the greatest musicians in the world dating back to the late ’50s, so he’s heard everyone, he’s interacted with everyone, and that’s what you get on the bandstand. He’s there for the music, and he does whatever he can to elevate the situation. He’s been travelling around the world doing that for over 60 years. It’s an incredible loss, for sure.

Any other thoughts to share in light of his passing?

He and George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Charles Lloyd, so many great musicians grew up together in Memphis, and so that connection was very deep. I remember hearing Harold and George together up here … and a few times in New York over the years, but their collaborations weren’t as frequent over the last number of years as they had been in the past. But they happened to be performing at the Jazz Standard [in late July] with Peter Bernstein and John Weber and George’s son, George Coleman Jr., and I had an opportunity to hang out with Harold one day, and to hear them together at the club. It was such a wonderful experience to hear those two play together, because it was like hearing two parts of one mind — so connected musically and personally. It was really nice to see that, and I believe they have a new recording out as well. When I reflect back on Harold, he had such a wonderful life, he had so many deep connections with so many people … he really touched a lot of people. An incredible spirit and a tremendous loss for all of us.