MANN MAKES MONEY AND MUSIC
Since the late ‘50s, flutist Herbie Mann has been one of jazz’s most popular instrumentalists, and that’s exactly what he intended.
“I loved be-bop but it’s limiting, rhythmically and emotionally,” he said by phone from his New York home. “I think (mainstream) jazz musicians have purposely avoided being popular by what they played. They wanted to separate themselves from the mass of humanity, and that mass only listened to pop artists.
“So all my music was a reaching out, not for the 5% of the audience who are jazz fans, but the 95% who aren’t. I wanted to show that there were ways to enjoy the music, not necessarily for its finer points and intellectual approach, but for enjoyment and fun.”
His strategy worked. Mann, who’s played funk, disco, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music, has had several best-selling records. Among these are the 1962 LP, “Herbie Mann at the Village Gate” (Atlantic) which included the hit tune “Comin’ Home Baby” and two Top 40 singles, “Hijack” (1975) and “Superman” (1979). He still plays about 170 dates a year, and appears tonight at the Palace.
Despite his commercial success, Mann doesn’t feel he’s sold out: “Everybody has their own choice and I’ve always thought of myself as an entertainer who played jazz. I decided I would try to see why it was that jazz was not more accessible. I always thought jazz musicians limited their success by saying, ‘This is what I’m going to do, I’m not going to do anything else,’ but you have to suffer for it. Anyway, why should only bad musicians make money?”
One thing that spurred Mann to seek wide-ranging popularity was that he “grew up seeing Bird (Charlie Parker), Bud Powell, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others live the jazz musician’s life while everyone else connected with them--managers, agents, record people--did better (financially).”
The 57-year-old flutist found that “a lot of guys that played in my bands used to object to my music and the way we played it until they realized that they could make money and have fun at the same time.”
Mann’s current group, Jazil Brazz (an anagram for Brazil Jazz), represents his continuing affection for the music of Brazil, which he first visited in 1961 while on a tour with such jazz giants as Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Dorham.
“Before I went to Brazil, I was playing Afro-Cuban style jazz,” he said. “It was simple melodically, but involved rhythmically. Eventually the simpleness of the melodies became boring. But in Brazilian music, you not only have this amazing percussive, rhythmic concept, but you also have the most lyrical melodies in the world. Anytime I’m depressed, I just put on a Brazilian record. For me, there’s nothing like it.”
Mann was so taken by what he heard on his Brazilian junket that upon his return in 1962, he became one of the first Americans to record a bossa nova record. “But ‘Herbie Mann, (Antonio Carlos) Jobim and Joao Gilberto’ (Atlantic) wasn’t released until 1964,” he said, “because ‘Comin’ Home Baby’ was just out and doing well.”
Brazilian tunes have remained a part of Mann’s repertoire and these days he “plays a lot of Djavan and Ivan Lins. They’re the two best composers in Brazil for me right now,” he said.
Mann began his musical life as a clarinetist. “My mother took me to see Benny Goodman in 1939, and I knew when the band came up playing ‘Let’s Dance’ that that was what I wanted to do.”
Then he became a saxophonist and was making some headway in the New York jazz scene when “I was recommended for a jazz flute record with accordionist Mat Mathews,” he recalled. Mann didn’t know how to play a flute, and told Mathews, “ ‘My flute’s being repaired. I’ll learn the arrangements on saxophone.’ That gave me time to figure out what to do. So I listened to (trumpeters) Miles (Davis), Dizzy (Gillespie) and Clifford Brown and tried to think of it as a flute.” Three weeks later, he made the record.
Mann says that while he has no regrets, “I might have been more academically interested in what I was doing, but I didn’t want it all to get in the way. I wanted it to be as natural as possible.”