Mobley Interview

Downbeat Interview – August 17,1973


In his late teens at the turn of the 1950s, Mobley played with and wrote for rhythm-and-blues man 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, 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 is feeling the Parker style. But Mobley and Rollins seem to have offered fully matured styles before their woodwind and 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 Minton’s — Arthur Edgehill (drums), Doug Watkins (bass) and 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 any-one 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 to ether. I remember a concert in Pittsburgh, we Clifford Brown — oh. man, that was amazing. Then when they finished, Max and Art got into it. Mm, that 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, NJ 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! (snap)-‘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 ’30s 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 year began with travel through the U.S and record date with an old friend, the post-Giant Steps Coltrane.

“I told Miles ‘I 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 and 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 freelance 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, 196? . It was his first trip out of the U.S.

“l 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 get 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! I 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 the 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 on baritone sax, and Bill Hardman on 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 on him. “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 l 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 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. that’s wrong?’ I had to get it together. get my tempo together. play my speed.”

In the l950s’ 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 be-comes 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 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 melodicism 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 under-statement, 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 Motley’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…”