COMMENTARY: Jazz & popular music; APPRECIATION: Harold Mabern

For many decades a loose coalition of musicians, critics and academics have lobbied hard to have jazz viewed as distinct from, and to a large extent outside, the realm of popular (and certainly “pop”) music. There are many variations on this argument, many of them valid. The degree of artistry and achievement necessary to be even a good, let alone great, jazz musician should not viewed through the restrictive lens of charts is one contention. Jazz musicians have never received the credit or fame, either commercially or critically, that they deserve within the world of mainstream arts is another. Jazz hasn’t been a music solely or predominantly for dancing since the swing era is a third, and jazz as a great art form, created in large part by African Americans, should be viewed in the same manner as European classical music, something to be treasured and nurtured rather than evaluated mainly or strictly by bottom line sales standards is yet another.

While agreeing with much of this, there’s one problem this school of thought has fostered, and it continues to hurt jazz’s reach and exposure to the larger public. The notion that jazz should be viewed either mostly or totally as an art/concert music both implicitly and practically ensures a limited audience. First, it leads to a tendency by many that unless you are a musician or have had musical training you can’t understand and appreciate it. Second, the notion it’s divorced from all other popular music gives gatekeeper types all the cover they need to justify its exclusion from contemporary music programming. Never mind that this is at best a questionable, and to my view bogus, notion. The people who run the Grammys and control the presentation of music on broadcast/cable TV already don’t need any valid reason to ignore jazz, but they can cite this idea as a prime reason for their decision. The fact jazz continues to vanish from terrestrial airwaves only makes it tougher for the average listener to hear it, let alone become familiar with it.

A prime example of jazz’s separation from the popular music universe can be seen in the latest edition of Bloomsbury Academic’s 33 1/3 book series. This is an ongoing series of short music books devoted to analysis and discussion of selected albums. Each book covers one LP and features a distinguished writer giving their take on its importance. The series has extended over a decade, with 86 short books published. Over that time there’s been a grand total of ZERO books on jazz. In the estimation of Bloomsbury Academic, not a single jazz LP is or was worthy of the extended treatment given rock and pop LPs. There have been a handful of soul/R&B and blues albums included, but the vast majority are rock, and a predominant number of the subjects white males.

Before anyone jumps to obvious conclusions, no, I am NOT accusing Bloomsbury Academic of racism, sexism or any other ism, though I’m sure there will be others who span the list of 86 titles and find it severely lacking. Interestingly, there’s a new edition in the series titled “The 33 1/3 B-Sides: New essays by 33 1/3 authors on beloved and underrated albums.” It gathers another 53 titles over 230 plus pages, and there’s finally ONE jazz album included. Aaron Cohen (also this month’s Jazz Conversations guest), who previously covered Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace,” offers his views on Von Freeman’s 1972 classic “Doin’ It Right Now,”

My point isn’t so much to excoriate Bloomsbury Academic (even though I have considerable problems with any work purporting to be conclusive about popular music utilizing this restrictive selection process), but to emphasize the extent to which so many people among even as narrow a field as music book publishing ignore a highly specialized idiom like jazz. There are many artists, both in the separate 33 1/3 series and the new companion book, whose music I’ve enjoyed for many years and still do today. But even if you limit choices to just the decades from the ’60s to the present, excluding all but one jazz LP is outrageous. It shows a blatant ignorance of music history from a group who should know better.

Now Bloomsbury Academic’s counter argument would no doubt be we didn’t include any contemporary classical albums either, nor many country, folk, bluegrass or selections from international performers. Aside from the fact this is ANOTHER major problem with the series, that’s way beside the point. Jazz may not be on the corporate radio airwaves or covered in many of their newspapers and magazines, but it’s a viable and important art form, respected and loved around the world. There are numerous wonderful musicians, both active and deceased, whose music merits the critical attention and examination the 33 1/3 series offers. That they’ve chosen not to incorporate jazz artists is a blight in the series, but it’s more so an indicator that perhaps some re-evaluation is in order for those who present, promote and champion jazz.


Everyone in the jazz world loved and appreciated pianist Harold Mabern, even if he sometimes would get overlooked when discussions took place about the great Memphis musicians. But Mabern had a distinctive phrasing, wonderful rhythmic sense and beautiful manner of soloing and accompanying that made him a welcome presence on any bandstand and a favored contributor to a host of sessions. Mabern, who died recently at 83 of a heart attack, came out of the Bluff City’s teeming 50s music scene. He attended Manassas High School, the same school where such names as Hank Crawford, Booker Little, Charles Lloyd, Frank Strozier, George Coleman and Isaac Hayes also matriculated. Mabern and Coleman were extremely close friends, and Mabern played on several albums with him, including Coleman’s upcoming release “The Quartet.”

However like some of his other Memphis comrades, he had to leave before making his reputation. He relocated to 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. Then came a move to New York City in the ’60s, where he performed with groups including Lionel Hampton’s Big Band and Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet. In 1963, he and Coleman backed Miles Davis at San Francisco jazz club The Black Hawk for a brief run

His career as a leader blossomed in the late ’60s after he signed with Prestige. His four albums, “A Few Miles From Memphis,” “Rakin’ and Scrapin’”, “Workin’ and Wailin’” and “Greasy Kid Stuff!” all superbly mixed bop and hard bop influences with blues sensibility. From there, he became an even bigger star in the ’70s, appearing on a series of live and studio recordings for trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. He was also part of two acclaimed multi-piano ensembles: The Piano Choir led by Stanley Cowell and the Contemporary Piano Ensemble, which was founded in tribute to his hero Phineas Newborn, arguably the greatest of the Memphis piano legends.

He became involved in the academic end in the ’80s. Mabern started a teaching position at William Paterson University in New Jersey in 1981. His students included Joe Farnsworth, Bill Stewart, Roxy Coss, Freddie Hendrix, Tyshawn Sorey, Mark Guiliana and Eric Alexander. Alexander subsequently helped Mabern regain prominence in the ’90s, collaborating with him on a slew of releases. Their partnership extended that would co well into the 21st century. Mabern’s most recent release “The Iron Man: Live at Smoke was issued by Smoke Sessions last November. He leaves behind a treasure trove of 20 albums as a leader and nearly 100 where his skills as a brilliant sideman were highly evident.