Jazz Profiles from NPR
Herbie Mann

Produced by Cary Ginell

NPR Jazz is sad to report the death of jazz flute player Herbie Mann. A family spokesperson informed NPR that Herbie passed away on Tuesday, July 1, at home in New Mexico, after a lengthy battle with prostate cancer.

Herbie Mann  

The world according to flutist and composer Herbie Mann was a utopian musical paradise where jazz is made up of of Afro-Cuban, Middle-Eastern, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music. In the 1960s, he discovered Brazil's bossa-nova; in the 1970s, he even found disco rhythms in jazz.

Listen to producer Arif Mardin, Mann's former manager John Levy, percussionist Ray Barretto, and Afro-Cuban music historian Raul Rico, Jr. explain Mann's popularity

Unlike most of his contemporaries in jazz, when Mann began playing flute in 1940s he had no forefathers to learn from, no pioneers of jazz flute to idolize. He was forced to look elsewhere -- both inside and outside of jazz -- to develop his approach to jazz and the flute. Among numerous musical influences, Mann was particularly drawn to rhythms and melodies from South America and the Caribbean.

Listen to Raul Rico Jr. explain how Mann's approach to Afro-Caribbean music help bridge cultural gaps in the U.S.

While Mann was a consistent winner of Down Beat critics' polls for jazz flute, his broad palette of musical influences often found him at odds with many jazz purists. Some felt that Mann's playing was directed towards a more pop-oriented audience; others thought he exhibited an unabashed sexuality that seemed worlds apart from the serious demeanor of the bebop generation.

Listen to Levy talk about the disparity between Mann and many jazz purists

Herbie Mann was born Herbert Jay Solomon in Brooklyn, New York, on April 16, 1930. Early in his childhood, Mann was so enthralled with rhythm that he wanted to be a drummer. Instead, a cousin of his mother convinced him to play the clarinet.

In 1948, Mann began serving four years in the army and while stationed in Trieste, Italy, he began playing saxophone in the military band. After his discharge from the service, he saw a jazz scene overflowing with sax players and he fell back on his second instrument, the flute.

Listen to Mann recall having not many jazz flutists to idolize

"[Critics] always hated me. I was the Kenny G. of the '60s. People would run up to the stage and stamp their fists and say, 'That's not jazz!'"

-- Herbie Mann  

In 1954, Mann released his first album for Bethlehem Records, Herbie Mann Plays. Although at that time he was jamming with bebop innovators like bassist Milt Hinton, drummers Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke, and pianist Tommy Flanagan, Mann was never truly comfortable playing straight-ahead bebop. As he began to bring non-jazz elements into his sound, Mann's flute playing began to sound tougher and more aggressive.

Listen to ethnomusicologist Dr. Gerald Behague describe Mann's flute playing

Three years later, Mann made the first of three albums for Verve Records, titled The Magic Flute of Herbie Mann. The album featured, "The Evolution of Mann" which became an instant hit on the radio thanks to New York disc jockey, "Symphony Sid" Torin.

Mann then formed an Afro-Cuban band with percussionists like Rudy Collins, Ray Mantilla, and Carlos "Patato" Valdez, all from Cuba's legendary Machito Orchestra. Because Mann was able to pay the percussionists more money than what they were making with the other Latin orchestras, a rift was created between Mann and many of the other Latin bandleaders.

Listen to Mann recall his dispute with Latin bandleaders

Eventually, Mann's interest in Afro-Cuban jazz led him to the music's source --- Africa. In 1959, the U.S. State Department funded a trip for Mann to visit Africa, after they heard his version of "African Suite."

Ray Barretto  

After his trip to Africa, Mann moved to Atlantic Records, releasing Common Ground (1960), which embraced a wider sense of the African musical diaspora. Mann's band included musicians from Puerto Rico, Nigeria, and beyond. His follow-up, Family of Mann, drew on traditions as diverse as R&B and Yiddish music.

Listen to percussionist Ray Barretto (pictured) talk about his experience working with Mann

In 1961, Mann recorded a live album at New York City's Village Gate jazz club. The set featured "Comin' Home Baby" which became Mann's first major crossover hit. The immense popularity of At the Village Gate made Mann a true superstar.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Mann forged ahead into new territory. Inspired by the classic Brazilian film Black Orpheus, Mann convinced his manager Monte Kay to book him a tour to Brazil, although he was hardly known there.

Listen to Mann explain how he convinced his manager to book him concerts in Brazil

Mann returned to the U.S. transformed by the music he had heard in Brazil, intent on making a Brazilian jazz album. Although guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz had already made a smash hit in 1962 with their Brazilian jazz album, Jazz Samba, Mann was unimpressed. His response, also released in 1962, was Do The Bossa Nova, featuring more of the real deal: Brazilian musicians like Mendes, guitarist Baden Powell, and pianist and arranger Antonio Carlos Jobim.

After the bossa-nova craze ran its course, Mann ventured off into Middle Eastern music, which resulted in the 1966 album, Impressions of the Middle East. Two years later, Mann delved deeper into yet another genre: rhythm & blues. While in London, he heard Willie Mitchell's Hi Records hit, "Mercy" and as he had done with his exploration of Afro-Cuban music, Mann went straight to the source: Memphis, Tennesee.

Listen to Mann recall his visit to Memphis

Memphis Underground  

After absorbing Memphis' Stax and Hi records sounds, Mann came out with the soul-jazz album Memphis Underground; it became his best-selling disc ever. The radio-friendly music and the explosive R&B solo work from guitarist Sonny Sharrock on the disc again infuriated jazz critics.

After the breakthrough success with Memphis Underground, Mann continue to explore R&B and its distant cousin, disco. In 1969, Atlantic allowed Mann to start his own label, Embryo. Mann released the sexually-charged album Push Push in 1971, generating a significant amount of controversy over the suggestive album cover -- a nude Mann posing seductively with flute in hand.

Listen to Mann talk about the cover of Push Push

Throughout the 1970s, Mann created more distance between himself and the jazz establishment by recording reggae, disco, British rock, and Japanese music albums. By the time he recorded Discotheque, he hardly had a jazz core audience. Throughout the 1980s, Mann remained in obscurity when it came to jazz.

Mann resurfaced in jazz in 1992 with his label, Kokopelli, when he made the album Deep Pocket with other disenfranchised jazz artists like vibraphonist Roy Ayers, pianist Les McCann, and saxophonist David Newman.

Mann moved to New Mexico to run Kokopelli, content ot be semi-retired but still writing music for his group Sona Terra. In the late 1990s, he was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, and the disease finally took his life on July 1, 2003.

Listen to Mann reflect on his lengthy career


View Herbie Mann (70th Birthday Tribute) show playlist


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