Beale Street Talks

Is there a Memphis style in jazz, a Memphis sound or school? The city is so steeped in the genealogy of blues, from publisher-patriarch W.C. Handy to the postwar Beale Street--ers (B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Johnny Ace, Junior Parker) to Sam Phillips and the sons of Sun to the rhythmic ministrations of Muscle Shoals, that it is difficult to think of any Memphis-related music as anything but bluesy. The major Memphis-born or -bred jazz musicians generally fit the bill, and it's not surprising that many of them got a foothold in Chicago, another town famous for the blues, before moving on to New York. But Memphis blues is different.

The only member of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five who wasn't from New Orleans was Memphian Lil Hardin, the least prepossessing blues player in either ensemble. But of those musicians only Lil could turn out the classic blue ballad ''Just for a Thrill,'' which suggests a kind of urbanity far removed from the basic 12-or 16-bar mantra. Indeed, the bona fide Memphian bluesmen tend to mitigate the raw expressiveness of the form with compositional finesse, creating a kind of local, blues-inflected Tin Pan Alley strain exemplified by Handy's melodic compositions, Ace's throbbing ballads, and Al Green's tempered soul. Most of their brethren in jazz share a collective gutbucket memory mitigated by harmonic and technical sophistication.

It may be mere coincidence that Memphis produced Alberta Hunter, the singer who wrote a classic blues for Bessie Smith and then played Showboat in London; Buster Bailey, the clarinetist who became one of the first jazz stars to accrue extensive classical training (and compromise his blues); Jimmy Crawford, the drummer who brought a cocksure backbeat to bear on the most wittily genteel of swing orchestras, Jimmie Lunceford's; and Sonny Criss, the alto saxophonist who amplified Charlie Parker's amalgamation of blues and pop. But a profusion of coincidences generally adds up to something very like a tradition. Perhaps the central figure in Memphis's postwar jazz scene was virtuoso pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., whose career was blighted by illness but whose activities in the late '40s, before he earned national recognition, seem to have touched everyone who followed him out of Beale Street, including trumpeter Booker Little, saxophonists George Coleman and Frank Strozier, bassist Jamil Nasser, and pianist Harold Mabern. From the time he arrived in New York, Newborn generated controversy--acclaimed for dazzling technique, attacked for glibness. Both of those strenuously contested opinions are supported by his highly uneven recordings. Yet at his best Newborn was an original and inventive stylist whose facility suggested Tatum and whose disposition was best served on medium-tempo blue ballads.

His truest heir, Harold Mabern, got a very different response when he traveled, by way of Chicago and that way station for Memphians, the MJT+3, to New York in 1959. He was instantly welcomed into the fold, and within a decade could add to his vita work with Lionel Hampton, the Art Farmer--Benny Golson Jazztet, Donald Byrd, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Stanley Turrentine, and a cluster of singers, notably Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Arthur Prysock, and Dakota Staton. Critics were respectful in a half-attentive way--undoubtedly a solid player, he lacked the originality of, say, McCoy Tyner or Bill Evans. So he didn't get many recording sessions of his own and seemed to resign himself to that increasingly uncommon role of eminent sideman, not least as a dominant personality in Stanley Cowell's Piano Choir.

Recently Mabern has achieved a smattering of renown in his own right, abetted by his friends from Memphis. His affiliations over some 40 years with Coleman, Strozier, and Nasser have failed to produce an adequate documentation on records, but have finally earned lasting and grateful recognition among New York fans--their perquisite for surviving. Fashions come and go, but you can bet the ranch on the rhythmic intertwinings of Mabern and Nasser, especially in their work with Coleman, which has grown increasingly tenacious. In December, they appeared at the Jazz Standard with the George Coleman Quartet, ably supported by George Coleman Jr. on drums, and made time jump through hoops. Coleman welded short, nudging phrases into rangy sinuous payoffs, while the rhythm trio rumbled like a dynamo--Mabern pumping chords and tremolo fills, heavily percussive yet nimbly airborne, alternating teeming blues-drenched voicings with modal harmonies that drove the ensemble to wide-open spaces. Mabern often builds his solos in the manner of Wes Montgomery, from single-note hammering in the octave left of middle C to double-barreled groove-pocket chords. With the wind at his back, he can sound like an ocean roar.

He would probably reject the idea as absurd, but Mabern is a far more rewarding and effective pianist than Newborn. His technique, which can be surprisingly ripe, never overwhelms his expressive power. He has effected a secure alloy that marries McCoy Tyner's clustering modality with rippling asides that stem from Tatum and the nasty glisses of gospel-driven blues piano. If he lacks the poise of the older man's every-finger-a-bell-tone touch, he has an unembarrassed elation that evaded Newborn, and when he puts his mind to it, as on ''It's a Lonesome Old Town,'' he is Newborn's match in the realm of blue ballads. That selection, inspired by the Frank Sinatra record but in Mabern's interpretation more reminiscent of Kay Starr's earthy lament, is a highlight of The Leading Man (1995), a DIW album distributed by Columbia in its Legendary Pioneers series--yet another instance of a jazzman making the transition from who? to living legend without passing Go. It was produced by the pianist and Blakey-groomed jazz activist James Williams, the most gifted Memphis-born musician in a generation.

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