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.

Like Newborn, Mabern and his contemporaries apprenticed in Beale Street r&b bands, an experience they resented at the time but are now delighted to flaunt. Only five years younger than his mentor, Mabern, who was born in 1936, made a typically Memphian detour from blues when, after moving to Chicago in 1954, he studied harmony with Ahmad Jamal. Drawn no less to the long eccentric winding phrases of Chris Anderson and the driving brilliance of Bud Powell, he developed a comprehensive modern style, though, as he told Jazzis editor Larry Blumenfeld, ”I think of myself today as a blues pianist who understands jazz.” His new album, Mabern’s Grooveyard, coproduced by Williams and Kazunori Sugiyama for DIW (now distributed in America by Koch), is perhaps his most satisfying to date.

It begins with a kind of informal trilogy of jazz standards that progress in tempo and feeling from medium groove to hurtling groove. Carl Perkins’s ”Grooveyard” is ideal for cerebration in a lyrical mode, generously sprinkled with blues glisses, a Mabern hallmark, and sustained with dramatic tension over tremolos and dissonant block chords. Tadd Dameron’s ”Ladybird” begins deceptively as a faux blues with an eight-plus-four intro that seamlessly flows into the 32-bar theme, rendered as bop with a gospel edge. Two years ago, Mabern recorded Duke Pearson’s ”Jeannine” as a piano duet with Geoff Keezer on For Phineas (Sackville); here he attacks it with pulsing, light-fingered percussiveness, from the treble repeat in the head through a riff-laden and unusually fitting fade-out. Of the pop tunes, ”East of the Sun” gains nothing from a bossa nova arrangement or a glissing-into-space fade, but ”A Hundred Years From Today” is a model of unpretentious, openhearted melody playing, impeccably paced and buttressed with forthright chords. Victor Young’s 1933 melody might have been a model vehicle for Fats Waller, who never recorded it–at least, Mabern’s rendition inspires such speculation until the harmonic broadside of his coda brings you back to the ’90s.

The album’s success owes much to drummer Tony Reedus, whose plush cymbal work has a fitting homeyness, unlike the spare, angular attack of Jack DeJohnette on Mabern’s previous DIWs, including Straight Street, which emphasizes the more progressive half of the Memphis equation. Christian McBride’s contribution is on a par with Mabern’s. Few bassists can make the prospect of a bass solo on almost every selection palatable, but McBride never bores. His arco solo on ”It’s a Lonesome Old Town” and his plucked accompaniment on the same album’s ”Moment’s Notice” showed an affinity between him and Mabern that is fully realized here, especially in his bowed choruses on Gigi Gryce’s ebullient 16-bar blues ”Minority” (a retrospective of Gryce’s tunes is long overdue) and an uncustomary version of Avery Parrish’s ”After Hours.” Parrish’s seductive keyboard blues was memorably revived last year by David Maxwell and Pinetop Perkins, who added lyrics, and as Mabern strums his second chorus with tremolos, you anticipate another good colloquial workout. But just then he initiates a stop-time figure and turns it over to McBride for three radiant choruses. Mabern’s return–backed by McBride’s pizzicato shuffle rhythm–is anticlimactic, but thoroughly characteristic of the Memphian penchant for turning blues on its head.