Herbie Mann

Jazz flautist who explored world music
Click to follow

Herbert Jay Soloman (Herbie Mann), flautist and composer: born New York 16 April 1930; married 1956 Ruth Shore (one son, one daughter; married dissolved 1971), 1971 Jan Cloonts (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1990), 1991 Susan Janeal Arison; died Santa Fe, New Mexico 1 July 2003.

Almost 30 years before labels like "world music fusion" were invented, the jazz flautist and composer Herbie Mann began a musical odyssey that would take him to places which were at some times unlikely and at others frowned upon - but often ended up being rather popular. Panned by many critics for his eclectic and sometimes eccentric excursions from his early roots in jump, swing and bebop, Mann once declared, "I was the Kenny G of the Sixties. People would run up to the stage and stamp their fists and say, 'That's not jazz!' "

To the chagrin of neighbours, Mann's childhood passion for rhythm found noisy expression on sundry household utensils. This interest would later resurface in his explorations of African and Latin music but, when Mann was nine, his mother redirected his nascent talent by taking him to a Benny Goodman concert near their home in Brooklyn, New York. That experience turned Mann on to playing the clarinet though by the age of 14, when he began his first professional engagements, he had switched to tenor saxophone.

A four-year stint with the US Army in Trieste, Italy, saw him honing his musical skills with the 98th Army Band. When he left the military, he struggled to find his own voice and felt thwarted by a surfeit of similar-sounding competitors. Prompted by an offer of session work as a flautist with a then unknown Carmen McRae, he took up the flute, eventually becoming the first jazz musician to establish his career performing almost exclusively on this perennially unfashionable instrument.

His first album, Herbie Mann Plays (1954), was conventional bebop, but he soon developed a tougher sound which would suit his growing interest in other areas such as Afro-Cuban music. By 1957, he had his first hit with "The Evolution of Mann". Two years later he formed the ground-breaking Afro-Jazz Sextet, which toured 15 African countries in 1960 on a quest for connections with the roots of the music they were exploring. Soon after, Mann initiated an enduring on-off love affair with Brazil and its music. He first toured there in 1961 and became enchanted by the bossa nova movement, later describing this period as the seminal musical experience of his life.

The following year yielded the best-selling album Herbie Mann at the Village Gate and his biggest hit, "Comin' Home Baby". Still hooked on bossa, he returned to Brazil, recording with the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sergio Mendes and Baden Powell.

By the mid-Sixties the bossa craze had subsided in the face of world domination by the Beatles, but Mann had turned his attention to Middle Eastern music, and the end of that decade found him toying with rock and even R&B flavours. His 1969 album Memphis Underground captures him at the peak of his popularity and is considered a landmark in soul-jazz fusion. It featured such talents as Roy Ayers, Larry Coryell, Sonny Sharrock and the Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous and set the tone for his 1970s experiments in rock and funk with his band the Family of Mann.

Mann's penchant for rock first surfaced on the controversial album Push Push (1971), which included a guest appearance by the Southern rock luminary Duane Allman. In 1974, he called on the services of Stéphane Grappelli and Mick Taylor to play on London Underground, a covers album of songs by the likes of Eric Clapton, Traffic and the Rolling Stones.

Mann's mid- and late-Seventies albums showcased subsequent forays into disco and reggae, only reaffirming the populist nature of his work, which often reflected contemporary musical fashions. He recorded three disco albums which brought him the Top Ten hit "High Jack", but further alienated what was left of his jazz following.

When he turned his back on flirtations with pop and returned to his passion for Brazilian music, his popularity waned, thus bringing to an end in 1979 his 20-year relationship with Atlantic Records. Though he continued to record, Mann spent much of the next decade in obscurity, only rallying with the formation of his group Jasil Brazz, with whom he made a comeback of sorts with the 1990 album Caminho de Casa.

In 1989, Mann had relocated from his native New York to Pecos, near Santa Fe, and he would spend the autumn of his life in New Mexico.

In 1992 he formed his own label Kokopelli Music as an outlet for himself and other disenfranchised jazz artists. In a significant return to form during 1995, Mann recorded the entirely jazz-based Peace Pieces in tribute to the music of Bill Evans, and celebrated his 65th birthday in grand style with a residency at the infamous Blue Note club in New York.

Mann was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in 1997 and began the long battle that would eventually claim his life. He nevertheless continued writing music for his new group, Sona Terra, which finally reflected his Jewish roots and featured his younger son Geoff on drums. Possessed of a legendary energy, he concluded his working days with them. In a career spanning half a century he had recorded over 100 albums as leader.

In the words of Sy Johnson, a friend and colleague for some 40 years, he was "a guy who loved music of all kinds and [was] eager to explore it all . . . a wonderful Pied Piper of jazz, drawing our attention to what's happening around the world".

Jon Lusk