Herbie Mann, a musician who enjoyed wide popularity in the 1960s and ‘70s by expanding the boundaries of the flute as an instrument in jazz and pop music, has died. He was 73.
Mann died late Tuesday in Santa Fe, N.M. He had been living with prostate cancer for several years.
While viewed mainly as a jazz player, Mann worked comfortably in a variety of musical genres, including Latin, R & B, bossa nova, rock and disco. He often blended elements of each of these styles to produce music that, although commercially successful through the mid-1970s, was not always critically appreciated.
Mann was born Herbert Jay Solomon in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father was a furrier and his family had no particular musical affinity, but Mann did from an early age.
He began playing the clarinet at the age of 9 after his mother took him to see the great Benny Goodman.
“I knew that when the band came up playing ‘Let’s Dance’ that that was what I wanted to do,” he told writer Zan Stewart in a story in The Times some years ago.
He studied saxophone and flute and at 14 began playing professionally at summer resorts in the Catskills.
After a four-year stint playing in a U.S. Army orchestra in Europe, Mann returned to the United States intent on a successful career as a tenor saxophonist. After finding the competition on that instrument steep, however, he decided to focus on the flute.
He got his big break in 1953.
Recommended to accordionist Mat Mathews for a band he was forming to back a young singer named Carmen McRae, Mann faced one problem. Mathews was looking for a flutist and Mann wasn’t quite ready to record on that instrument. He told Mathews that his flute was being repaired and that he would work out the arrangements on his saxophone.
“That gave me time to figure out what to do,” Mann said. Three weeks later, Mann was in the recording studio ready to play.
Through the 1950s, he worked with Mathews’ band and a number of other small groups. He recorded albums as a lead man on a variety of labels and began exploring Afro-Cuban rhythms in 1958.
He began traveling abroad on State Department-sponsored tours in the late 1950s. The trips that influenced him the most musically were to Africa and Brazil in the early 1960s.
He incorporated rhythms from his 15-nation African journey in his ever-expanding repertoire. He called his time in Brazil, just as the bossa nova was expanding, the seminal musical experience in his life.
Through the 1960s, Mann became a popular recording artist with Atlantic Records, which released his first album, “Common Ground,” in 1960. Two years later, his live album “Herbie Mann at the Village Gate,” sold more than 500,000 copies. It included his first hit song, “Comin’ Home Baby,” which would place in the Top 30 on the pop charts.
His recording process in the 1960s was eclectic. He would bring in musicians with widely diverse backgrounds just to see what would happen. Calling the results a jumble of sound, a critic for Down Beat noted that the music “looked like fun to do, but wasn’t very pleasant to listen to.”
That didn’t seem to bother Mann, who looked for ways to make his work commercially appealing. “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,” he told Stewart in The Times article.
“So all my music was about 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.”
Mann produced other good selling recordings, including “Memphis Underground” in 1969, “Push Push,” which featured guitarist Duane Allman, in 1971, and “Hold On I’m Coming” in 1972.
In the 1970s, he experimented in rock, reggae and disco and established a group called the “Family of Mann.” Pulled into the disco craze, he recorded three albums.
When he tried to return to the bossa nova and Latin sounds that he favored, his record sales fell off and Atlantic terminated his contract in 1979. Mann started his own recording company two years later, but never again attained the commercial success he had enjoyed with Atlantic.
The longtime New York resident was diagnosed as having inoperable cancer in 1997 and moved with his fourth wife, Susan Janeal Arison, to Santa Fe.
Mann is survived by his wife; sons Paul Mann of San Francisco and Geoff Mann of New York City; daughters Claudia Mann-Basler of Espanola, N.M., and Laura Mann of New York City; his mother, Ruth Solomon of Hallandale, Fla.; and a sister, Judi Burnstein of Niceville, Fla.