Harold Mabern Archive

Harold Mabern Biography

Harold Mabern, Jr. (March 20, 1936 – September 17, 2019) forged an immense contribution to the world of jazz with his dynamic and powerful piano style. His enormous command of the repertoire included an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and popular standards, and an equally deep library of blues, R&B, pop and soul. Mabern’s work in jazz education was profoundly significant and he changed the lives of countless students with his innovative and important teaching.

Mabern was a proud native of Memphis, Tennessee.  He first attended Douglass High School, then transferred to Manassas High School.  Pianists Charles Thomas and Phineas Newborn Jr. were major influences on his playing, and he also cited the impact of hearing live performances from The Ahmad Jamal Trio.  His early Memphis musical compatriots were trumpeter Booker Little, and saxophonists Frank Strozier and George Coleman, with whom he would share a lifelong collaboration. In Chicago, Mabern performed and recorded five albums with Walter Perkins’ MJT + 3.

Mabern recorded twenty-nine albums as a leader, including such well-known early classics as Rakin’ and Scrapin’ (also the title of his most well-known composition) and his first record as a leader, A Few Miles from Memphis, both from 1968. Many of the recordings in his later life involved his working band with bassist John Weber and his former William Paterson students Eric Alexander and Joe Farnsworth. Mabern was a central figure at the prestigious Smoke Jazz Club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  His last four highly celebrated recordings were on the Smoke Sessions label, including his final release, fittingly titled The Iron Man: Live at Smoke.

Mabern made numerous iconic recordings as a sideman, including several each with trumpeter Lee Morgan and guitarist Wes Montgomery.  He was a member of Miles Davis’ group (along with fellow Memphis natives George Coleman and Jamil Nasser) for six weeks, although they never recorded.  Early in his career he toured with Lionel Hampton.  The list of musical luminaries Mabern performed with includes such giants as: George Coleman, Art Farmer, Jimmy Forrest, Frank Foster, Grant Green, Johnny Griffin, Freddie Hubbard, The Jazztet (where he succeeded McCoy Tyner and Cedar Walton in the piano chair), J.J. Johnson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cecil Payne, Stanley Turrentine, Archie Shepp and Sonny Stitt.  It is also notable that his powerful voice helped to launch the recording careers of many of those he mentored, including Eric Alexander, Mike DiRubbo, Steve Davis, Joe Farnsworth. In addition, he generously contributed to numerous other small-label recordings with up-and-coming players whose names were not as well known.

For nearly four decades, Mabern’s commitment to teaching was steadfast. He was on the faculty of the Stanford Jazz Workshop for many years, and he taught in William Paterson University’s Jazz Program for nearly four decades.  He inspired generations, literally hundreds of William Paterson students with his spirit, work ethic and energy and many of them went on to become professionals in the field and represent this part of his enormous legacy.  It is perhaps fitting that Mabern taught a full schedule of lessons and ensembles at William Paterson on the same day that he passed.  The Harold Mabern Memorial Scholarship Endowment has been created there in his honor, and his collection of sheet music, LPs, and musical and family photos is part of the Living Jazz Archives at William Paterson.