July 23, 2024

America Sure Missed Out on Honoring One of its Best

It is a disgrace that the musical genius and educator Harold Mabern passed away this week having not been recognized by our nation as one of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters. I nominated Professor Mabern twice, in 2015 and 2018. I believe that others did as well. Sadly, he was never selected by the opaque nomination process. The world lost a musical giant this month and America missed an opportunity to learn from one of its masters.

Here is the petition I wrote, signed by 3,000+, urging William Paterson University to rename their music building in Professor Mabern’s honor. Like the NEA, the university failed to do the right thing. The petition comments are quite moving and worth reading.

The following is the text of the letter I submitted nominating Harold Mabern for the designation of NEA Jazz Master.

NEA Jazz Masters Nominating Committee

Dear Members of the Committee:

Thank you for honoring our living jazz legends with the NEA Jazz Masters program. I have attended several of your recognition ceremonies and know how much the designation means to our culture and the Masters themselves. It is for this reason that I nominate Harold Mabern as a performing NEA Jazz Master. He has been one of my favorite musicians for four decades.

Harold Mabern is a national treasure whose six decades of music making have left an indelible mark on jazz as an art form. His love of music, talent, and encyclopedic knowledge delights listeners of all ages. He is a natural storyteller with his hands and in the oral tradition of sharing wisdom of the past with subsequent generations of musicians. Seeing Mabern perform live causes audiences to fall in love with jazz, fall in love with Harold, and leave with a song in their heart. In the span of fifteen minutes, Mabern might play the theme from Sesame Street for a no longer restless toddler, the hippest most complex hard bop for aficionados, and a Stevie Wonder tune for the person who will become a jazz fan before the set is over.

There are three reasons why Harold Mabern should be a NEA Jazz Master; the man, his music; and his students.

Ask any group of jazz musicians and they will tell tales of Mabes’ generosity. There are countless stories of free lessons, charts written on napkins after having just played three sets, and road stories punctuated with sung solos, pantomimed chord progressions, and a quick piano tutorial. He has more energy than musicians one-third his age and will play an encore when his peers refuse. The man and his music exude pure joy. He can make a plastic keyboard at an outdoor jazz camp sound like a concert grand at Carnegie Hall. His big hands and explosive chords can also make that grand piano appear to levitate.

Mabern is a brilliant composer and one of the most electrifying pianists of the past sixty years. He is a synthesis of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Phineas Newborn, McCoy Tyner, but with a sound you recognize with the second he touches the piano. He is a sensitive accompanist and explosive soloist with the blues at his core. Mabern is said to know more than 5,000 songs that he can play from memory in any key. Twenty-something musicians marvel at not only his remarkable knowledge of the American songbook and bebop compositions, but his ability to turn an Usher tune into an instant modern jazz classic. His work with the likes of the Jazztet, Miles Davis, Betty Carter, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, Joe Williams, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Frank Strozier, and Sarah Vaughan are rivaled by his decades’ long collaboration with NEA Jazz Master George Coleman and former student, Eric Alexander. His discography is massive and he continues to sell-out jazz venues around the world. His recent recordings rank among his best.

For more than thirty years, Harold Mabern has taught at William Paterson University. He will ride a bus through a blizzard to teach. His former students include Carl Allen, Eric Alexander, Joe Farnsworth, Bill Stewart, Eddie Allen, Bill Evans, Alexis Cole, Barry Danielian, and Tyshawn Sorey. He is a frequent teaching artist at other institutions including the Stanford Jazz Workshop and Julliard. Mr. Mabern will sit-in with younger musicians, offer advice, and loves performing at a venue in New York City featuring dozens of pool and ping-pong tables because it allows him to bring his infectious, toe-tapping, musical genius to future jazz fans. I cannot think of a more deserving American for this prestigious honor.


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

Here is the biographical information I attached, along with the Wikipedia discography of his career.

Harold Mabern Biography

“Harold Mabern was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee — a city that’s a capital of 20th century American music (March 20, 1936). Like fellow Memphis jazz artists George Coleman, Booker Little, and Frank Strozier, Mabern attended Manassas High School, and after an early attempt at playing the drums, he taught himself piano and fell under the spell of pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., an influence that would shape and linger with Mabern for the rest of his life.

Along with some other Memphis musicians, Mabern moved to Chicago in in 1954 where he soon found work backing up tenor sax players Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordon. He also gained further influence from studying with pianist Ahmad Jamal and played in the hardbop group MJT + 3, before going on to New York City in 1959. “Chicago gave me the stuff I needed — and the confidence,” he recalled in 1987. “New York refined my stuff and it’s still doing it.”

One of his earliest significant gigs was an 18-month stay with Art Farmer and Benny Golson’s Jazztet. After the Jazztet disbanded, Mabern worked with Jimmy Forrest, Lionel Hampton, Donald Byrd and did a brief stint with Miles Davis in 1963. He worked with countless modern jazz legends, including Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, Joe Williams, Johnny Hartman, and Wes Montgomery.” (text from https://haroldmabern.jazzgiants.net/biography/)

Between 1968–70, Mabern led four albums for Prestige, the first being A Few Miles From Memphis with a lineup that featured two saxophonists, one of them fellow Memphis native George Coleman. As the 1970s began, Harold Mabern became a key member of Lee Morgan’s working group and appeared on several live and studio recordings made by the trumpeter before his death in 1972. He has played with NEA Jazz Master George Coleman for decades and is a staple of the scene at New York’s Smoke Jazz Club.

In more recent years, he has toured and recorded extensively with his former William Paterson University student, the tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. To date, Mabern and Alexander have appeared on over twenty CDs together. Harold Mabern has been a beloved faculty member at William Paterson University since 1981 where he has left an indelible impression on two generations of musical artists.

In recent years, Harold Mabern has recorded as a leader for DIW/Columbia, Smoke Sessions, Venus and Sackville and toured with the Contemporary Piano Ensemble. In 2015 Mabern released Afro Blue featuring many of today’s leading jazz vocalists.

Harold Mabern’s Discography