The Tragedy and Majesty of Hank Mobley

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The tragedy and majesty of Hank Mobley is a subject that is tailor-made for Frugal Apathy to tackle. The meaning and mission of Frugal Apathy is to bring attention to the prevalent apathy that is choking the joy and growth of art and music out of our world culture. Concerning this all pervasive apathy, Frugal Apathy feels he has a right to comment quite strongly on it, for unlike most jazz writers, Frugal Apathy is a professional (not an amateur) working musician and this subject directly affects his means of providing a livelihood in his chosen profession.

To be quite frank about it, very few really value the experience of great art and music anymore. For without the few hearty souls who do, great art and music would be wiped off the face of the earth. For the great majority of people, art and music holds no value unless it makes money. Witness Congress’ recent move to cut funding completely for the National Endowment For The Arts (if they had their way). Or the budget cutting all over the country of music and art from the schools. Art and music is seen as expendable because it’s about enriching the inner self as well as our culture, not about making money. Cultural activities are deemed valueless. Thus music and art has become a thing that is primarily concerned with the fact that it must be bought and sold, without which it simply can not exist. Success (and thus value) in music is judged by how many recordings are sold. And the absurd part of this is that even if 25,000 people bought your record you are still judged not as valuable as another who sold 1,000,000 records. You are deemed “marginal”. The Buddhists have a phrase that they call “honzon” which means ‘object of worship’. Your honzon governs everything in your life and is your motivating force because it is what you value most in life. In American culture, our ‘honzon’ is money. We worship money. Pure and simple. It is what we value more than any other thing. It is what brings us the greatest joy, and we have taught the whole world to embrace our culture of greed and lust for money and the power it seems to bring.

The tragedy of Hank Mobley is how grossly he was undervalued during his lifetime. Only after his death has his proper importance begun to be assessed. I will here go on record to take a comment Jackie McLean made about Hank Mobley one step further: McLean said that Hank Mobley “was one of the most lyrical tenor saxophonists in jazz history.” I would say that Hank Mobley was THE most lyrical tenor saxophonist that jazz has yet to produce. You cannot argue that it was Lester Young, for Mobley extended and built on Young’s foundation. Mobley came out of Charlie Parker, but also Lester Young whom he knew and learned from. I love the story Horace Silver told about the time his band which included Mobley played a double bill in Cleveland with Lester Young. They had a small dressing room where Young had his horn lying on a small table. Mobley came into the room looking for somewhere to lay his horn down. After seeing there was no place for it, he headed out the room. But he was stopped by Young who said, “Lady Hank, come on and lay your peoples next to mine.” Now, if that’s not prophetic and symbolic of a story, I don’t know one better! It was like Young passing the torch to Mobley, by telling him it was okay to lay Mobley’s horn next his! Like Mobley had the blessing of the great Lester Young. I feel that Mobley was a jazz innovator equal in stature to Miles or Coltrane in terms of his influence. He was certainly the first mature new tenor stylist in the new hard bop style by 1953-54. Certainly his tenor voice had crystallized and fully formed before Coltrane or Rollins at this point. In my opinion, Mobley was the fulfillment of Charlie Parker on the tenor sax, much in the way Pepper Adams (who as Mobley was equally undervalued) was for the baritone sax. One has to simply listen to the tens of thousands of saxophonists playing in his wake. Yes, you may hear Coltrane in these guys, but you need a grasp and mastery of bop to play like Coltrane and the only way to do it is through playing a little bit of Hank Mobley. He is the personification of the hard bop tenor saxophone style. The man was an innovator, period. All this talk of him being “the middle-weight champion of the tenor sax” did a true dis-service to Mobley and made the average listener perceive him as somewhere in the middle of the pack, but not as important as Coltrane, Rollins or Getz. Yet, somehow I bet every jazz lover has more than one Hank Mobley recording in their collection. You can’t help but love how the man played. Hank Mobley always sounded fresh in the genre until his last days and truly never made a bad recording.

When I lived in NYC from 1980-88, I can remember one well renowned young saxophonist upon listening to me play put me down, saying: “Oh he’s hung up on Bird and Hank Mobley!” I was actually proud of that comment. And I was acutely aware that his motivation was because when he swung it didn’t flow right and didn’t sound authentic. And he’s supposed to be one of the great new players. I remember discussing this with the great Charles McPherson, my mentor. His comment was, “How are you as a saxophonist going to be playing anything greater than what Charlie Parker played? They say that because they can’t play it! These guys want to master bop but can’t and don’t want to take the time it takes to master it the way that you did.” I’m also reminded of a comment somebody made to Phil Woods, putting down bop and Charlie Parker. Woods handed him his alto and said, “Here! Lemme hear YOU play some Charlie Parker!”

The problem with all of this, the belittling of Hank Mobley and other bop masters as old-fashioned and irrelevant I believe, is the mis-assessment of the true importance of bop. It is not old fashioned nor is a genre that is finished, been exhausted and has nothing new to say anymore as many (younger types) claim. Perhaps if Charlie Parker had lived into the 1960s would this point be clearer. I have often said, bop is a genre of jazz where you use structure to liberate improvisation. You play with complete freedom, endlessly within it’s structure. That’s why we make so much ado about bop. Where else can you play the same tunes over and over and find new things to play and new ways to play it? That is, if you are truly creative and have mastered the form. That is what is so attractive about bop. Using it’s structure you can improvise on a high technical level every time you play it. Ask Phil Woods, George Coleman or Charles McPherson, who are one of the few masters still left among us. Better yet, go and hear them live while you can and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The underlying problem about the mis-assessment and misunderstanding of the innovation of bop is appreciating the element of swing. This is a generational issue. Jazz artists born after the seventies perceive swing as old fashioned because it isn’t the underlying rhythm of their generation. The pervasive musical rhythm after 1970 is the backbeat rhythm and the many complex variations of it. As it should be, there would be a further evolution of jazz rhythms beyond swing. (I myself am a proponent of odd-metered rhythm in my compositions.) To illustrate this, think of the incidental music one hears in elevators or on TV commercials. In the 60s, you heard tunes, jingles etc. predominately using a swing rhythm; where as after the 1970s you began hear less of it and more rock and backbeat rhythms. This put the jazz artists born after 1970 at a disadvantage to be able to hear swing easily, because in jazz you primarily learn through osmosis. You could only then get it through going back and getting it from the records or older artists. In otherwords you had to work real hard at it and for a generation that wants things quick, fast in a hurry, it became easier and easier to discard the swing and bop. By 1980, with the advent of Reaganomics, the “me over we/hurray for me later for you” philosophy, fueled by the ‘honzon’ of money, jazz musicians began to make huge amounts of money for discarding swing and playing the backbeat. So now younger musicians began not to even try to master the swing rhythm through it’s last evolution, bop. Why? It was more attractive now to play an easier, less demanding music that more people liked that could make you a lot money, then to play a superior music that was harder to master that less people liked and you would probably starve playing. It was a no brainer. And so swing and bop became irrelevant. But to the real jazz players something was not quite right with this decision. I believe because every time they heard somebody like Hank Mobley it sounded really good to them and reminded them what true excellence sounds like. Even Grover Washington originally was a straight-ahead jazz player who was more or less forced away from that path.

To justify all of this, guys began to put down cats who continued to swing and play straight ahead. In the case of Hank Mobley, he became consistently underrated, undervalued and his contributions as an original and innovative saxophone stylist and composer became discarded, ignored and judged as unimportant. And this by the very people who recorded him and championed his career, Alfred Lion and Blue Note records. I really don’t believe it was done intentionally. But again, the ‘honzon’ or object of worship of money affected even Lion and Blue Note records. For after the commercial success of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”, every Blue Note artist was required to include one similar commercial track on their recordings. To add to the confusion due to the advent of the avant-garde in the early sixties, many Blue Note artists’ straight ahead recordings were shelved in favor or more modern or avant-garde material, because it was believed to sell more with the public. After all, John Coltrane, the leader of the avant-garde jazz movement had the greatest jazz hit of all time with “My Favorite Things”, -a Billboard chart topper. Many of Mobley’s greatest works such as “A Slice Of The Top” and “Straight No Filter” were shelved. Had they came out at the time, it not only would have benefited Mobley’s career, because every working artist needs a current recording on the market; -it very well could have saved his life.

Most of the successful artists are the ones who are extroverts and know how to champion their own causes. Mobley was an introvert and a quiet, personal man who retired to his car during his breaks when he was playing. He rarely pushed his own envelope. That more than any other reason is why he isn’t properly more acknowledged. Mobley knew his own worth and was acutely aware of the injustices done to him. Nobody could have explained his plight better than he: “I feel like Charlie Parker” he says, “It’s hard for me to think of what could be and what should have been. I lived with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk; I walked with them up and down the street. I did not know what it meant when I listened to them cry, -until it happened to me . . .” Indeed! We love you Hank and your music will live forever. It certainly will pass the 500 Years/Googles Test.*

~Dale Fielder

*500 Years/Googles Test

500 Years/Googles Test was a phrase coined by jazz pianist Hampton Hawes in his book, “Raise Up Off Me”. He was speaking about how a jazz artist’s work becomes better known after their death. He said: “500 years from now, some cat with some space googles, will be listening to my work and say, ‘that Hampton Hawes sure was a bad mother______!'”

My recommended listening list for essential Hank Mobley would be:

1. The Columbia Jazz Messengers from 1956. The one that introduced “Nica’s Dream” -Mobley’s playing on this is superb.

2. Horace Silver with The Jazz Messengers (Blue Note)

3. Messeges (Prestige)

4. His magnum opus: Soul Station (Blue Note) his most famous and definitive work.

5. Workout (Blue Note)

6. MAX, Max Roach Quintet (Argo) his sound here is un-real!

7. Whistle Stop-Kenny Dorham (Blue Note),

8. Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (Columbia) Mobley’s solo on ‘So What’ is off the hook!,

9. The Turnaround (Blue Note)

10. A Slice Of The Top (Blue Note) title cut is outstanding!

Honorable Mentions:

a.Wynton Kelly Trio feat. Hank Mobley – Live @ The Famous Ballroom 1967. These are long club date cuts where everybody stretches out for 10 minutes or more. Doubt Mobley’s greatness? Listen to his solo on “Hackensack”.

b. Miles Davis Quintet Live at the Blackhawk – Mobley blended with Miles and his band so well. Mobley fitted this band like a hand in glove! Forget what Miles said about Mobley not inspiring him. Miles’ problem was with himelf and what he was personally going through back then. If Mobley was such a drag, why was he there for almost 2 years? And when he left what did Miles do? Went out and hired another tenor player who sounded and played almost like Mobley, George Coleman.

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