© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"I played with Parker a lot of times, and he told me a lot of things. To a young person he wouldn't say much, but what he said meant a whole lot. He didn't say, 'Practice these scales, do this or do that—he just said, 'Baby, you'd better learn those blues; can't play enough of the blues' "
-Hank Mobley, tenor saxophonist, composer-arranger
“Among the great American modern jazz saxophonists, Hank Mobley has been the most unjustly neglected - the truly forgotten man. Yet he played and recorded prolifically with the greatest legends of his era such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Johnny Griffin and Art Blakey, helping to create some of their finest work. His best recordings are classics, characterized by an instantly identifiable sound and style, and constant musical inventiveness. But his loner personality made him his own worst enemy, many of his records remained unissued in his lifetime, and he died forgotten and destitute. Now, at last, most of his recorded legacy is available on CD and he is increasingly recognized as one of the major figures of modern jazz. In this book, the first to be published about Hank Mobley, Derek Ansell provides a detailed critical introduction to his music and a timely reassessment of his contribution to the jazz art.”
- Parkway, the US distributor for UK publishers includes this annotation of its site about Workout—The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell which the British press Northway issued in 2008.
Overlooked seems to be a word that constantly plagued Hank Mobley [1930-1986] throughout his all-too-brief career.
When mentioning the prominent composer-arrangers associated with the Hard Bop style of Jazz that flourished in New York from about 1945-65, names like Sonny Clark, Elmo Hope, Horace Silver, Wayne Shorter are referenced, but Hank Mobley’s name rarely comes up despite the huge outpouring of excellent, original music on his many Blue Note recordings from this period.
When the talk turns to tenor sax masters, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims are names that seem to be referenced immediately in Jazz circles - Hank Mobley’s name doesn’t come up, or if it does, it does so disparagingly along the lines of him being a “middleweight” in the company of “heavyweights.”
Two things prompted this realization of Hank as one of Modern Jazz’s “forgotten men.”
The first was accidentally locating the following interview that Hank gave to John Litweiler while I was searching for information on another topic in the
March 29, 1973 issue of Downbeat.
When, as an aside, I decided to see what else the Jazz Literature had to offer on Hank, I initially found that most of what was readily available about him and his music was to be found in the insert notes that annotate his many recordings, mostly for Blue Note, and in isolated chapters in books about “Modern Jazz” in the second half of the 20th century.
Always intrigued by a bibliographic challenge, the harder I looked the more I found.
Mercifully, there are Bob Blumenthal’s detailed writings in the booklet that accompanies the Mosaic Records set The Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions [MD6-131] and further digging uncovered two articles in the defunct British Magazine Jazz Monthly from the early 1960s that were written by Michael James who is also Hank’s chronicler in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld.
More investigated work by the dauntless editorial staff staff at JazzProfiles located more British-based book information in the chapter on Hank in Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-65 and Workout—The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell which the British press Northway issued in 2008.
The Brits came to the rescue once again with specific references to Hank’s recordings for the label in Richard Cook’s The Biography of Blue Note Records [Secker and Warburg/London -2001] and the ongoing editions of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD edited and annotated by Richard Cook and Brian Morton.
Fortunately, the amount of source material continued to increase as I went along. I dug deeper and found further commentaries on Hank and his music in the works of Jack Chambers and Gary Giddins ;then I located a full length treatment of Hank’s oeuvre in Workout—The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell which the British press Northway issued in 2008.
The second or other factor that prompted me to try to access and archive as much information on Hank as possible came about as a result of a concerted effort on my part to listen Hank’s recorded legacy.
In so doing, I came to the conclusion that Mobley's music is absolutely brilliant in terms of the natural flow of its melodies and in the way his original compositions are constructed. These are some of the most interesting and intriguing Jazz compositions ever written and some of the most fun to play on.
And then there is his much maligned soloing, but I’m getting too far ahead of myself.
Let’s begin with the Litweiler interview as the 1973 interview that Hank gave to John is the only lengthy revelation about himself and his music that I come across, at least, to date..
“Last August 17, Hank Mobley, one of the powerful minds of the modern tenor saxophone, came to Chicago for a weekend gig. Of several events during his Chicago sojourn, two are particularly important. First, he had a reunion with Arlene Lissner. a music fan from the 1950s, an assistant professor of psychiatry at U. of Illinois, and consultant for various government health and drug abuse programs; by the time you read this she will be Arlene Lissner Mobley. Second, he met a long-established rhythm section—pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. bassist Reggie Willis, drummer Wilbur Campbell -and a skillful late-bop trumpeter, Frank Gordon, to work with him on occasional club and concert dates.
Mobley has been a Chicago resident since, a bonus for us locals. Musically, this is an oppressive city, given the fleeting character of most gigs and the jazz scene's general anonymity. The best Chicago musicians don't surface very often; the ones with big reputations —Herbie Hancock, the Art Ensemble. Johnny Griffin, Sun Ra, etc.. etc.-became famous elsewhere. One fears this grey city won't be able to contain a performer of Mobley's stature.
For the present, though, we have the opportunity to review Mobley's career in jazz, an unusually productive one.
A determination to work with every contemporary of importance led to his central role in the evolution of post-Parker jazz; an inventor of hard bop, he is second only to Rollins in defining the idiom's characteristic tenor style. He's directed 23 record albums and appeared as sideman on 56 others; in the last '50s. only Coltrane recorded more often. Years ago "soul" was a useful word; Hank Mobley's unique dedication to a personal vision of his art leads to an instinctive rejection of simply programmatic or easy or fashionable musics-and in his intense way, he gives the word renewed meaning.
At 16, he became interested in playing alto sax while home from school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and earned money to buy one by working in a bowling alley. "When I finally got up enough money for my horn, the dealer went on a month's vacation." he recalled. "In the meantime. I got a music book, and when he got back I knew the whole instrument; all I had to do was put it in my mouth and play. I'll tell you, when I was about 8 they wanted me to play the piano, but I wanted to play cops and robbers. But when I got serious the music started coming easy.
"I was in woodshop, carpentry, auto mechanics; then I took machine shop for a year. I was a nervous wreck studying to be a machinist. We had a little music thing in school, and I played this Lester Young solo, One O'Clock Jump, note for note. The shop teacher used to play trumpet, and he said, 'There's no room out there for a black machinist. The way you play saxophone, why don't you study that?' That's the way I did. I quit shop that same year, I just put on my hip clothes and went chasing women and going to rock and roll things ..."
In his late teens at the turn of the 1950s, Mobley played with and wrote for rhythm-and-bluesman Paul Gayten; he and pianist Walter Davis Jr. also worked in a Newark club's house band. Weekly, guest performers from New York would front the band - Billie Holiday, Bud Powell, Miles Davis —and one weekend in 1951 Max Roach played with and then hired Mobley.
"I was just 21. We opened in a place on 125th Street in Harlem; Charlie Parker had just been there before me. and here I come. I'm scared to death —here's Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean. Kenny Dorham. Gerry Mulligan, just about all the young musicians came by there." But Mobley took, and immediately became part of the lively New York scene.
"To the best of my knowledge, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, myself, Jimmy Heath, John Coltrane - we called ourselves the 'Five Brothers', you know, the five black brothers-we all started playing alto, but Charlie Parker was such a monster that we all gave up and switched to tenor. I wasn't creating anything new, I was just part of a clique. When we listened to Fats Navarro and Bud Powell, when we were 20, 21, all of us were learning together. We weren't trying to surpass Parker or the heavyweights. But as you get older you start finding different directions. At the time it was like going to college. It was just doing our thing, playing different changes, experimenting ..."
Certainly Parker's impact was felt more keenly by Mobley's than by any other generation. By the early 1950s, a New York avant-garde was struggling, eventually to assert a crucial opening up of the rigid bop orthodoxy. Even the earliest work of Heath and Jackie McLean showed unique ways of feeling the Parker style, but Mobley and Rollins seem to have offered fully matured styles before their woodwind-brass playing brothers.
The 1951-53 period with Roach was an excellent introduction to the New York jazz life; Roach recorded Mobleysation, Hank's first song, and when the band broke up Mobley easily found free-lance work in clubs, studios, on a tour with Gayten again, and, for two weeks, with Duke Ellington:
"Jimmy Hamilton had to have some dental work done. Oscar Pettiford called me; I didn't play clarinet, but I played some of the clarinet parts on tenor. Paul Gonsalves. Willie Cook, Ray Nance, we were the four Horsemen, but nobody would show me the music, and it was all messed up. So Duke would say, 'A Train', and while I was fumbling for the music the band had started. Finally Harry Carney and Cat Anderson helped me straighten it out..."
While Mobley worked that summer with Clifford Brown in Tadd Dameron's band at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Roach was in California forming a new band. He attempted to phone Mobley without success, but he did manage to contact Brown-and Mobley missed making a bit of history. Later in the year Mobley joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band, appeared on three Gillespie records (one a sextet date), and after a year with the trumpeter joined Horace Silver.
"Horace had the quartet at Minion's -Arthur Edgehill (drums). Doug Watkins (bass) any myself - then on weekends Art Blakey and Kenny Dorham would come in to jam, 'cause they were right around the corner. Out of that we started feeling something, and we said, 'Let's do our thing: we all got something going name-wise; if anyone gets a job let's use all of us.' I think Arthur Edgehill was working with somebody else, too, but Blakey was right there. Horace'd get a job. or Art, or Kenny, or I'd get a job; we'd split the money equally. I think that's where the co-operative thing started; we lasted a year and a half, played what we had to play. Then Milt Jackson, they started a similar thing. Then Miles did it, then Max came through with Clifford Brown, so we had four groups trying to get something together. I remember a concert in Pittsburgh, we had Dizzy on trumpet, Kenny Dorham, Clifford Brown - oh, man, that was amazing. Then when they finished, Max and Art got into it - mm, thai was something else. It's not like that anymore ..."
It was during this 1954-56 period that Mobley began recording on his own; the music he composed and directed is generally considered his finest work. Initially he led on Savoy and Prestige sessions, but soon he got - and stayed - with Blue Note. Mobley recalls those days with relish. They recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, N.J. studio - "Savory recorded on Fridays, Prestige on Saturdays. Blue Note on Sundays, something like that. They'd buy the whiskey and brandy Saturday night and the food on Sunday — they'd set out salami, liverwurst, bologna, rye bread, the whole bit. Only Blue Note did it; the others were a little stiff. If we had a date Sunday, I'd rehearse the band Tuesday and Thursday in a New York studio ..."
Ike Quebec, the late tenorist, was the A&R coordinator, and at this time Alfred Lion and the late Frank Wolff ran Blue Note and supervised the sessions. "We'd be making a tape, and sometimes my horn might squeak, and Frank Wolff would say, 'Hank Mobley! You squeaked! You squeaked!' - and the whole band would crack up, we couldn't get back to play the tune. And old Alfred Lion would be walking around, (snap) 'Mmm!' (snap) Ooh! (snapJ- 'Now vait a minute, it don't sving, it don't sving!' So we'd stop and laugh, then come back and slow it down just a bit. Then he'd say, (snap) (snap), 'Fine, fine, dot really svings, ja!" (Lion and Wolff, German-born, had come to the U.S. in the '305 as refugees from the Nazis.)
Later in the '50s Mobley worked a year each with new Roach and Blakey bands. "In the early days, Sonny Rollins used to have a few problems and I was always kind of cool, so every time he'd have a problem they'd come to hire me." But drugs were a huge part of the bop and post-bop scene, a seemingly unavoidable fact of life, and in the latter part of the decade Hank was drawn into the heroin vortex. Once I played a particularly fine sextet record for him. His remark: "Oh, that thing. Five of the six of us were out to lunch. That's why they got Herbie Hancock; they always wanted one man in the band who was cool."
Arlene Lissner's remark is appropriate here: "There's more knowledge about drugs now . . . There was a feeling that if Parker could play like that and he was strung out, maybe there was something to being strung out," Mobley: "I had the knowledge. When I got strung out it was my own fault. A person getting strung out at age 18; that's a problem. He doesn't even have a chance to learn what life is about. By the time I got strung out I had learned my instrument, I was making money. Now, I don't have to worry about drugs — I've had enough of that whole thing. All of us are finished with it, it's a thing of the past now."
In January, 1961. Miles Davis hired Mobley for the longest continuous association of the tenorist's career. The Davis years began with travel through the U.S. and a record date with an old friend, the post-Giant Steps Coltrane. "I told Miles I'd never played with somebody who plays like Art Tatum on the saxophone. Miles said, That's why I hired you, I want to put your interpretation with his.' "
Davis was an easy-going leader to work for. Mobley recalls a Los Angeles sojourn: "I remember me and Philly Joe got to the airport five minutes before the plane left - we were both wandering all over town, and you know how big that city is, no subways, you can't get anywhere. You take Wynton Kelly, he's probably over at that hotel partying and talking about. 'Yeah, see you when I get back' -him and Paul Chambers. Miles is off talking to Boris Karloff-he and Miles lived in the same house on the Strip in Hollywood. Boris'd get up early and go sit on the bench like this (pant, pant) watching the young girls walk up and down the strip. We had to send for Harold (Lovette) the lawyer, to take care of business, tidy up the tax -after six nights, Wynton had about a $50 tab, Paul must've had about 50, Miles must've had a couple hundred. We hung out, the four of us, and sometimes we'd run into Miles on the street
"But when I left Miles, I was so tired of music, the whole world, man, I just went back to drugs." That was exactly the wrong course of action. He'd already done time on a narcotics charge; in 1964 he was arrested and imprisoned again. In the mid-'60s he and Lee Morgan formed a co-operative group that performed steadily; Mobley continued to write for Blakey and free-lance as well. He also teamed up with Kenny Dorham.
One of the happiest periods in his life began when he was called to London in March, 1967. It was his first trip out of the U.S. —"I missed it and Art Blakey, Dizzy, Miles" - and after seven weeks at Ronnie Scott's Club, Mobley toured Europe. Then, in 1968, Slide Hampton called from Paris - would Mobley come to take his place?
"Soon as I got there they had the fight at the Sorbonne. The whole city was on strike; you couldn't get a taxi, you couldn't gel nowhere. The train left me way out in the desert, it seemed, and I had to work at the Chat qui Peche that same night. Slide Hampton's niece, I think, came to pick me up. finally. People going around with rifles, all that kind of stuff. I said, 'I didn't have to go 4,000 miles-l saw all this at home.' I checked into the hotel and just stayed there and looked out the window."
Paris had several jazz clubs and a goodly number of Americans on hand — "In Paris there's a lot more communication between musicians than in the States. An American in Paris is a long way from home. I hung out with Johnny Griffin and Art Taylor all the time. Steve McCall was on the outskirts of town, Kenny Clarke was way out in the country, and we all used to meet at the Living Room in Paris." There Mobley met one of his boyhood heroes, Don Byas. "He mellowed with age, but he never lost his youth. He was all muscle, all strong. He'd say, 'I'm 57 years old, Hank. Hit me in my stomach.'
"I remember one night there were four nuts, Paul Gonsalves, Don, Archie Shepp and me. We came from the club, and we had a bottle on the floor; everybody said, 'We ain't going to drink anything, now,' 'Course I know when Paul and Don start drinking they might go crazy, We were at a round table talking shop —that was one of the most beautiful nights of my life - and we had to stay up for Paul; he had a habit of missing the bus. At 6 or 7 in the morning we got Paul on the bus, then we went back to Archie's crib, and we still aren't finished. Now we had a cooking contest. I started off making breakfast, Don baked a cake, and Archie made lunch. When I got home that afternoon, I was, whew...
"Those were good days. I'd say, This reminds me of how it should be.' Then I'd go to Munich, there's some more clubs, go to Rome, go to another country; you'd have such a rapport with the people." Hank even did a series of concerts in Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia—"All those places were like the Metropolitan Opera House." Usually Mobley fronted a local rhythm section—"unlikely combinations were the rule"-and there were TV and radio shots everywhere. The only records from this time find him leading a sextet in The Flip (Blue Note 84329), which Frank Wolff flew to Paris to record, and as a momentary second for Shepp on two BYG-Actuel dates. Naturally, Mobley performed with every important musician he met in Europe, including Ben Webster and Ornette Coleman.
He came home in mid-1970; the eastern jazz scene had decayed to a miserable state by then. He led a band at Slug's regularly and played and recorded elsewhere with Cedar Walton, piano; Sam Jones, bass; and Billy Higgins. drums, often adding Charles Davis, baritone sax, and Bill Hardman, trumpet; they recorded for Cobblestone. All this preceded his arrival in Chicago.
Whatever the varied influences of Lester Young, Byas, Webster. Dexter Gordon -in Mobley's youth, it was Charlie Parker who made by far the greatest impression.
"Where do you think everybody got the blues from? Did you ever hear Just Friends and tap your foot to it? Soul Station is the same thing, just like walking down the highway, it sounds like somebody's saying, 'Oh, man, I'm tired of this town, got to get away from this.' Parker played the modern blues; what he's saying is that so much of modern jazz, structures, harmonic progressions, they're all based on the blues.
"My uncle told me a lot of things" - Hank's uncle played trumpet and six other instruments and once led a small band - "and he always used to say, 'Listen to Lester Young.' When I was about 18 he told me: 'If you're with somebody who plays loud, you play soft, if somebody plays fast, you play slow. If you try to play the same thing they're playing you're in trouble.' Contrast. If you play next to Johnny Griffin or Coltrane, that's hard work. You have to out-psych them. They'd say, 'Let's play Cherokee', I'd go. 'naw, naw-ah, how about a little Bye Bye Blackbird?' I put my heavy form on them, then I can double up and do everything I want to do."
In fact, Mobley recorded with Griffin and Coltrane on a Blue Note date. "Johnny called a very fast tune, and I said, 'Wait a minute'. I walked around, they said, 'Hank, what's wrong?' I had to get it together, get my tempo together, play my speed." In these 1950s two-three and four-tenor dates, sometimes with Coltrane in tow, what often remains memorable is Mobley's warmth and lyric fluency. The sensitivity that his style is based on is perhaps best revealed by his rhythmic flexibility; the sense of contrast is internalized, he becomes a succession of Hank Mobleys as he plays. The style is notable for his love of the middle registers, the odd rhythmic shifts. the perfection of a complex sense of melody (straight-ahead versus decorative playing) that makes the structural evolution viable.
Given his skill, it's too bad he never recorded with Monk, though they played together for a few weeks in 1957. "It's hard to get your own thing together, then play something of Monk's. He's unique; if you try to go his way I don't think you'll bring your own, self out. To me, if you're with Monk you should play in the upper register as much as you can. Then it blends with him, 'cause he plays precise-like. A few saxophones could play with Monk - one was Trane, one was Rollins, the other was-me! I don't want to brag, but I happened to be a little on top of the case. He'd leave it to you how to play, and if he didn't like it he wouldn't say anything. Like Dizzy: 'Man, I never fire anybody, I just make it so bad for them they'll quit-' Round Midnight, now that'll be here until the sun dies; if I could write a song like that I'd be happy, most happy."
The dashing Clifford Brown became the dominant trumpet influence; in all other respects the original 1955-56 Jazz Messengers set the tone for the era- It was the best band Silver ever played with, and his best writing dates from his years with Mobley. When the Messengers broke up, Mobley remained with Silver, and in retrospect it seems Hank provided the musical continuity that really validated those early bands. His fully developed style was to remain substantially the same for some years. A light, sweet tone and a remarkable command of structure were his most obvious features: if the melodism was largely a transformation of Parker, the deeply felt form was Mobley's own. Hearing those recordings, it's remarkable how Mobley, by subtle shifts of accent, striking understatement, and sudden introduction of fresh material, could create gripping solos.
Mobley considers a 10" Lp set with Silver, Watkins and Blakey, and including early versions of My Sin and Avila and Tequila, the best of his early records —"I put a lot of work into it; Horace says he saw it in Europe, then." The same four plus Milt Jackson did Hank Mobley's All-Stars (Blue Note 81544), and we might consider that representative of the times. Immense sophistication informs his Ultramarine solo, a stunning work which Mobley enters sideways, after the unsubtle Jackson and Silver, and which, chameleon-like, is continually transformed.
During layoffs, Miles kept his men on salary, and sometimes he and Mobley would go out to hear Ornette, etc. "Miles pulled my coat to a few things. He suggested just straight ahead, hit every note on the head - it's hard to explain. It means, you can play two or three ways: you can play romantic-type, the big sound, like that; you can play mathematical, like my man Lee Konitz used to do with Warne Marsh; and the other is similar to Trane, where you hit everything sharp. Every time you try to get an idea across, you don't labor, play behind the beat, or anything like that; you hit it, and bring something out of it."
The result was a profound change - in fact, the style he offers, with little modification, today. His melodic formations grew less involved as attention became focussed on his rhythmic substructure. Now the tendency is to create a long web of shifting accents and ever-changing melodic material. The structure is, if anything, more subtle than ever. Precise timing is so crucial to this delicate art, every small run or grace note has its special importance. The surface lightness and naturalness may fool you: what Mobley actually projects is some of the most intense music of our time.
"I wrote a whole movie in Paris. It was about the French-Algerian war. and I wrote Algerian music and French music, back and forth. Then I came back and recorded it for Blue Note, and they didn't put it out. I had some of the same people I was playing with in New York-Cedar, Billy. Bob Cranshaw, Curtis Fuller. Freddie Hubbard ....
"The best thing I ever did is the brass ensemble record they won't put out" — a Blue Note date. "It features tenor with two trumpets, French horn, James Spaulding on alto, two trombones, baritone horn and tuba. I've been talking to Muhal (Richard Abrams), I'd like to write out some things and use them with his big band. There's no point going through two-three months trying to rehearse if they put it on the shelf. I'm tired of people saying. 'Do a record date', and you go through all the effort, you write something good that should be heard, and they sit on it. What's the point of it all? I have about five records on the shelf —Blue Note had half the black musicians around New York City, and now the records are just lying around. What they do is just hold it and wait for you to die. I bet they put out all of Lee Morgan's records now ..."
Of his currently available records, which does he consider the best? "Reach Out, Hi Voltage, The Turnaround, Caddy For Daddy, they're pretty much much the same." Soul Station (Blue Note 84031) is usually considered Mobley's most personal statement, one as intimate as Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus or Coltrane's Giant Steps; I might add Workout (Blue Note 84080) and the blistering Roll Call (Blue Note 84058) as especially strong works. Over the years, his standards have stayed consistently high —a unique achievement for any artist.
As a musician he can reasonably expect half his performing career yet to come. How does he predict his own future? "I don't see anything in this area or the east coast. The only alternative is California, where Benny Golson and the rest of the fellows are writing. I haven't found a company I'd really like to record for since I got back — one that'd give me leeway and proper money. I'd like to write anything I felt like, strings, whatever. I'd like to write a symphony, if they'd produce it. It'd take three months to rehearse and get it together... maybe I could do what Marion Brown and Archie Shepp and everyone else is doing: get a grant from the government and write your thing.
"I've got 20-some years of, not perfection, but of being a premier musician. I've written 80 songs-hell, I'm not 21 any more, you know ..." Given the jazz upheavals of the last decade it's perhaps not remarkable that Mobley is already considered an Old Master by the slightly younger Free musicians; recently he was startled to enter a Philadelphia club and hear Shepp play his 1954 Hankering. Fashions pass, but the likes of Mobley's sophistication and emotionality continue to teach us about the nature of art.
Away from music, his reading interests are along the lines of classic philosophers/psychologists. "We used to call things 'progressions,' " he muses. "It means you can go through a month or so, you don't hear anything new, you can't get anything together, and just all of a sudden everything hits you again. You can play every day, practice for hours, nothing's together. Then all of a sudden something might just say 'Bang!', and everything you do is right. You go through periods like that up-down, up-down."
Mobley's own fortunes have fluctuated along with those of the music as a whole. Nonetheless it's a pleasure to have him here, composing and playing, even if only for a little while. “