Generations Connect: Camille Thurman Interviews Jazz Veteran Harold Mabern

Harold Mabern with Camille Thurman

News | Sep, 6th 2017

In honor of our Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola,81-year-old pianist Harold Mabern sat down with talented young saxophonist and vocalist Camille Thurman. Mabern speaks on turning his idols into his mentors as well as playing with and learning from Cannonball Adderley, George Coleman, Sarah Vaughan, and many more. Catch Mabern with his Trio this weekend, and Thurman next week as she pays tribute to Sarah Vaughan.

Camille Thurman: So in 1959 you moved to New York City.

Harold Mabern: I moved to New York City November 21st, 1959. I had $5,000 in my shoes, because I didn’t want to take a chance on leaving it in the hotel. I had it wrapped up, $2,500 in each shoe. To show you how long ago that was, there were no ziplock bags, they weren’t on the market, they were being tested. So I had to wrap the money in a paper towel. I wanted to make this money last because you had to stay in New York City 6 months before you could join the musicians union.

First thing, when I got to New York City, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, who I have tremendous respect for, was standing in front of Birdland. Cannonball knew me from Chicago, saw me and said “Hey Big Hands, you want a gig?” and I said “sure!" He took me down to Birdland. It’s Tuesday night and the place is packed. Quincy Jones is there, Bill Lee (Spike Lee’s father) is there. Cannonball introduced me to Harry “Sweets” Edison, Tommy Flanagan, who is one of my heroes, is playing with Sweets. During that time, if you half way played and hung out you could get a record date. Sweets looked at me and said “You wanna play?” He didn’t ask me what I wanted to play. The old timers would test you. If you’re a musician, you’re supposed to know everything. That’s just the way it was then, it’s not like that now. He hired me on the spot and Tommy Flanagan went to go play with J.J. Johnson.

Elvin Jones said “where’s the gin?” and the producer said “all the gin is gone.” Elvin said “you can’t do the date without no gin!” And that’s how they came up with the title.

CT: That’s an incredible story. So once you got here to New York City you immediately started working with Cannonball and I know you worked with Tommy Flanagan and Jimmy Forrest too, right?

HM: I did a date with Jimmy Forrest called "All the Gin is Gone.” All of those guys at that time were drinking what we call “hard liquor.” Elvin Jones said “where’s the gin?” and the producer said “all the gin is gone.” Elvin said “you can’t do the date without no gin!” And that’s how they came up with the title.

CT: How did you meet saxophonist George Coleman?

HM: In Memphis, Tennessee. George Coleman was originally an alto saxophonist. If you download B.B. King singing “Woke Up This Morning,” George Coleman plays a hit solo honking on that alto.

When George Coleman and his brother were 14 years old, they didn’t study music but they took an alto saxophone apart and put it back together. So then we knew that George was a true musical genius so we all learned from him. When I say “we all” I’m referring to Frank Strozier, myself, Booker Erwin, and Charles Lloyd. Frank and I were playing what we call “West Coast music counterpoint." It was good music but conceptually speaking, the East Coast was a harder concept. George introduced us to Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and stuff like that because all we knew was Dave Brubeck, Warne Marsh, and Lenny Tristano, which was all good music, but a different concept.

CT: Wow, I am just beaming from all of this that you’re telling me. You mentioned that you worked with George Benson too and recorded on his record “Body Talk.” Could you talk to me about that?

HM: All of the older musicians would scope out the younger ones. Pee Wee Ellis had heard me play with different people and he figured that I would be good for that date and George didn’t have no problem, he said “Yeah, yeah, call him.” Frank Foster was on the date, Jack DeJohnette, Ron Carter, John Faddis, Earl Klugh, and a couple other people.

CT: I was checking out everybody that you played with and it’s incredible; like, even Roland Kirk.

HM: Right, we did three wonderful dates together. "Reeds & Deeds" and "The Roland Kirk Quartet Meets The Benny Golson Orchestra." I really enjoyed that and Rahsaan was very encouraging. Everyone was really supportive of me because I didn’t go in with an attitude and I let them know that I was happy to be there and my mindset was to do the work and it will come.

As a piano player, the first thing you need to learn how to do is be an accompanist. Cedar Walton said, “I’d rather comp than eat.” A lot of piano players don’t have the patience because when you're comping you’re supporting somebody else and you’re playing a subordinate role. I say the best way to learn how to comp is to play for singers.

CT: I’m a huge fan of pianists who know how to comp and listening to great vocalists like Sarah Vaughn and Betty Carter and Carmen McRae—all the people that they had supporting them. 

HM: Well, see, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, out of all, they frightened me because they both could sit down and accompany and show on the piano and say “Check these chords out.” That’s the key to learning how to play is playing with singers.

CT: There are a lot of great up-and-coming artists who are slaying this music.

HM: That’s why I take my hat off to Wynton Marsalis because he has shown that it can be done with what he’s doing here with this orchestra and that’s important to keep the legacy going of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, and whoever it is and that’s important. That’s why I still admire the colleges that are teaching jazz. College is not going to teach you how to play it’s just an enhancement.

CT: I’m going to ask you about one of my favorite singers in the world. You got to work with the great Sarah Vaughan. Could you tell me about what that was like for you?

HM: What happened was I was playing with Joe Williams. Bob James’s wife was getting ready to have his first child and he had to take off, so he recommended me. So, I get to the first rehearsal and I say hi to her and I ask her where the rest of the musicians are and she says, “Oh no, honey, it’s just me and you.” You hear what I said? No back up, it’s just me and you! I was shaking like a leaf. We did it and she was very complimentary. She paid me well and gave me a bonus. After that we became lifelong friends.

After the interview, Camille was asked for her advice to young musicians. "Go and see the elders, find mentors, if there’s somebody that you admire and they’re still alive, find them," she says. "Don’t be afraid and think they’re untouchable. That is so not true. I personally have gotten to know some of my idols just from asking. Reach out. Ask questions. Find them. Go to their shows. When George Coleman was in town, I was there to watch him and then eventually the relationship formed and I was very grateful and thankful for that. But you have to be present and not be scared to say hi, I love you, and I check you out."

Harold Mabern Trio will be performing at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola as part of the Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival on Friday September 8th, Saturday September 9th, and Sunday September 10th.

Camille Thurman and Charenee Wade will be performing a tribute to Sarah Vaughan on Wednesday September 13th and Thursday September 14th, also at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola and as part of the Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival.

(Photos by Lawrence Sumulong for Jazz at Lincoln Center)

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It’s almost September, and that can only mean one thing: the Coca-Cola Generations in Jazz Festival is just about here! Find out more and listen to a playlist featuring selections from participating artists.


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