Saturday, May 19, 2018

Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“A thorough view of the ill-fated and sorely neglected Mobley .... [Ansell's] analysis of the tenorist's recordings, virtually all Blue Note classics, is finely articulated and makes this a recommended read.”
-Will Smith, Jazz Times.

“Through an analysis of his recordings, Ansell argues convincingly for Mobley's importance as a hard bop innovator, as a creative and inventive soloist and as a composer and arranger. Studies like this possibly represent the most fruitful way forward in jazz literature.”
- Chris Yates, Jazz Rag.

“A useful guide to a saxophonist described by Horace Silver as ‘one of the most underrated musicians in jazz.’”
- Peter Vacher, Jazz UK

“[Ansell] succeeds in making the reader go to the music, which as much as anything else is surely the purpose of the book.”
- Nic Jones,

In JazzProfiles’ continuing efforts to shed more light on the career of tenor saxophonist and composer, Hank Mobley [1930-1986], we now come to the only book on him that I’ve been able to find and the fact that there is a book length treatment on him at all seems to be a minor miracle in and of itself.

A major reason for our efforts to help rescue Hank from obscurity can be summed up in the following quotation from Derek Ansell, the author of the biography which is entitled Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley :

“He was one of a relatively short list of great tenor saxophonists; innovative, creative jazz musicians who not only had a distinctive sound but contributed immensely to the development and evolution of the music.”

In order to rectify Mobley’s underrated, overlooked, underappreciated position, Derek extensively examines and details all of Hank’s recordings as both a sideman and as a leader.

One could argue that given the limited primary material on Hank - he sat for one extensive interview with John Litweiler which was published in Downbeat in 1973 - that Derek’s reliance on Hank’s recordings and their liner notes offers a limited perspective on his life and artistry.

But the main benefit of this approach is that it gets the reader back to listening to Hank’s music and, in a sense, back to where Mobley’s true importance lays. To paraphrase the late, Richard Sudhalter: Jazz musicians are their music; the two are one and the same; inseparable.

Derek offers some compelling reasons and possible explanations for Mobley’s diminished position in Jazz circles, as well as, a number of convincing arguments for establishing him as a significant figure in modern Jazz from 1955-1975 in the following Introduction and opening pages to his first chapter.


Hank Mobley was unique. He was much admired by other musicians, many of whom rated him as one of the very greatest modern stylists, and a tenor saxophonist who sold more records than almost anybody else on the Blue Note label. Yet he still managed to attract a lot of flack, at best, from critics and jazz commentators who undervalued his solo strengths and contributions to modern jazz and, at worst, from those who regarded him as obscure and unimportant.

A jazz musician who recorded twenty-five LPs as a leader for one independent record label and more for other companies can hardly be called obscure. Add in numerous sideman appearances in the 1950s and 1960s - far more than most musicians in his sphere, and a face that was well-known from liner photographs and even made the cover shot of The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff and you have a significant musician. And yet Hank Mobley was consistently underrated, unfavourably compared with some of his more flamboyant contemporaries of the day and never really given his due as a consistently inventive and often innovative tenor sax soloist and a composer of considerable skill and imagination.

Should you wish to know more about the major jazz musicians who made their names in the 1950s and 1960s, you will find plenty of books about John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and other key figures of the bop and hard bop movements of that time, but until now there has not been one about Hank Mobley. Why? The general consensus seems to be that Coltrane, Rollins
and even lesser talents such as Johnny Griffin, possessing hard, edgy tones in the fashion of the day, all tended to overshadow Mobley's quieter approach.

The hard bop sound was certainly used and developed by those musicians and you could hardly ignore the spectacular playing of Rollins and Trane, but it really wasn't that simple, as I attempt to show over the following pages. Partly, of course, it was a question of influences: Rollins from Coleman Hawkins; Trane from IHawk and Lester Young; Stan Getz from Lester Young. Getz is a good example: tremendously popular, he developed a modern, Parker-influenced variation of Young's approach to tenor playing but, because the earlier styles and sound were so well known to jazz aficionados, he was quickly accepted and soon winning polls and filling venues. Hank Mobley, on the other hand, had a light, lyrical sound that was all his own, not like that of anybody who had gone before, even though his style descended directly from Charlie Parker.

Jazz, for all the innovation, excitement and boundary pushing by key musicians over the years has, curiously, always managed to breed ultra-conservative followers. Jazz fans tend to stick to what they know and like and take slowly, if at all, to new ideas and styles. It took a long time for most fans to adjust to the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and even longer for them to accept Thelonious Monk, that iconoclastic genius of modern piano. It took years for the innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy to become absorbed into the mainstream and many jazz enthusiasts have still not made the final transition. Most jazz critics and writers cannot agree about anything much and fans tend to stick with a particular style and era to the exclusion of all else.

It is true to say that all jazz enthusiasts have a particular favourite jazz era, the one in which they first started to listen to the music. This overrides almost every other consideration for most people. I have yet to meet anyone who is exempt from this rule, myself included. Older people often have a lifelong love of New Orleans jazz that seldom extends beyond the swing era of the 1930s and early 1940s. The big band era is everything to some batches of enthusiasts and they have little time for other jazz periods.

Others, including many prominent critics, embraced the bop revolution of the 1940s, happily congratulating themselves on their powers of understanding, but could never quite come to terms with the minor revolution of the 1960s avant-garde movement. Yet more are totally overwhelmed by the cool music of the West Coast school in California and have little or no time for any other style.

Show me someone who embraces the best of jazz and the greatest musicians from New Orleans to California by way of Chicago and New York City, who can and does enjoy a wide range of jazz by Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Young, Hawkins, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Coltrane, Rollins, Mobley, Coleman, Dolphy, Taylor (Cecil, that is) and many others, and you will be showing me a real jazz enthusiast, someone who understands the true, ever-changing, ever-developing, constantly evolving nature of this music. But there are precious few of them around.

Hank Mobley was just one of many who missed out on the accolades and the big time and the fame and fortune. Partly, his ultimate, overall failure to make it was his own fault; it happened for many other reasons too. This is his story.”

Chapter 1

Early Messages 1954-55

“Hank Mobley seemed to arrive on the jazz scene in New York City from out of nowhere, with a sound and style all his own. Where others had taken years of preparation, rehearsal and work in various rhythm and blues bands, there was Hank, with little playing experience behind him, fully formed and raring to go. He was one of a relatively short list of great tenor saxophonists; innovative, creative jazz musicians who not only had a distinctive sound but contributed immensely to the development and evolution of the music.

Consider the most important musicians on the tenor saxophone. Coleman I lawkins came along first and made his mark as a distinctive soloist. For many years Hawkins was the major influence and source of inspiration to all jazz musicians who played tenor sax and the most important of them took their lead and general stylistic approach from him. Then, some years later, Lester Young showed that a radically different approach was possible. Many years after that, Sonny Rollins came along with an updated approach to the Hawkins concept and a little while later John Coltrane appeared with a sound and style that were utterly unique. Although his style had roots in what Hawkins and Young had done before, it was completely and utterly new and original. So new and original, in fact, that it took many commentators and people who thought they knew a thing or two about jazz at least ten years to appreciate the man's importance. In the 1960s, briefly, Albert Ayler offered yet another unique voice with a sound and style that were both radical and, in their reliance on old folk strains, fairly conservative.

The odd man out was Hank Mobley. He started to play with big name bands in 1951 when Max Roach hired him but, from then until his premature death in May 1986, he was creative, original, often brilliant, but consistently underrated by observers and critics of the music.

Those are the bare facts. To examine the reasons why he was so important we need to study his music. Fortunately he recorded prolifically: twenty-five alburns as a leader for Blue Note between 1954 and 1970 but, after including other labels such as Prestige, Savoy and Roulette, the total is more like thirty-four. Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, recognised the innovative skills and competence of Mobley, who soon became a leader on records. But most of the rest of his career was spent as a sideman in other people's bands and that gives us our first clue to the personality and character of Hank Mobley, the man and the musician.

Mobley was never a forceful or assertive character. We know from other musicians with whom he worked, and from observers of the jazz scene in the 1950$ and 19605, that he was always something of a recluse, going out to work in various combos and orchestras, playing his part and then returning home.

During the intervals at clubs he would disappear out to the car park or street and sit smoking in his car until it was time to play again. Writing his obituary in the September 1986 edition of Jazz Journal, Dave Gelly told of the time he visited the USA in 1963 and heard Hank play at the Five Spot Cafe in a combo with pianist Barry Harris. In conversation with Gelly, the pianist said: 'Don't bother trying to talk to Hank. He doesn't even talk to me. He's sitting out there in his car and he won't come until it's time for the next set.' Harris pointed out of the window and Gelly saw a shadowy figure sitting in an old, beaten-up Buick parked at the kerbside. Like some professional actors who hide behind a part and can bellow out the lines of King Lear or Henry V on-stage and then come off and be almost inarticulate off-stage, Hank could play with the very best jazz musicians on equal terms but once off the bandstand he became quiet, reticent and very introverted.

Gelly’s Jazz Journal obituary also pointed out that Mobley's sound, live, was something to marvel at, especially for those who were sitting close to the bandstand and hearing it direct. Although the recordings for Blue Note engineered by Rudy Van Gelder were very good and he probably produced the closest thing to a natural jazz sound on records, he did have his own idiosyncratic methods, adding a little echo and, as Gelly put it, he 'boosted Mobley's volume in relation to the rest of the band ... In person the sound shrank to a conversational level. It was laconic and somehow beady-eyed, a cool tone for a cool head.'

Van Gelder always jealously guarded the secrets of his methods of recording and the details of the equipment he used, even from fellow-professional recording engineers, so we are unlikely ever to know exactly what was added or subtracted from the natural sound of musicians such as Mobley. We can be sure, however, that the engaging, light blue gauzy sound that we hear on the best recordings was enhanced by the natural balance obtained in good clubs with light amplification; a situation that seems lost beyond recall in these days of massive over-amplified PA sound systems.

If booked to play in a band Mobley would always give his very best but if, as sometimes happened, he was distracted by another soloist, or found on arrival at the gig that another musician that he hadn't known about had been booked alongside him, he would retreat into his shell and play as little as possible, doing just enough to fulfil his obligation to the bandleader but shunning the chance to solo often, if at all.

He was, certainly, reticent and quiet most of the time, living for his music but unwilling, it seems, to take on the responsibilities of leadership. This must account, in part, for some of his early failure to attract attention or to show just how good a soloist he was, for his appearances could be limited by his own reservations and attitude. Early on in life, however, Mobley had decided that he wanted to be a musician.”

Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell is available through Parkwest Publications which has been a US distributor of UK publishers since 1983 and which you can visit via this link.  Once there, click on "Northway" for more music titles. You can also purchase through online booksellers.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to reading about one of my musical hero's. What a shame little videos are known,or his contemporaries are gone. Maybe the writer of this book could do one on another hero of mine: Philly Joe Jones.


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