The dozen or so regular diners at Market Square’s Bella Luna got a bit more than they expected Monday night when they went out for Italian right after the big storm. A jazz band, not typical for a Monday night, began playing, first a young trio made up of pianist Keith Brown, his brother Kenneth on drums, and Daniel Brown, no relation, on stand-up bass. At one crowded table up front, Keith and Kenneth’s dad, piano master Donald Brown, was thick in conversation with an older man, a fellow Memphis native who might not have been immediately recognizable to other diners as one of the few surviving legends of the bop era. Harold Mabern himself was enjoying a plate of pasta and sausage in the midst of friends, old and new.
When he and Donald talked about “Jack,” they meant percussionist Jack DeJohnette. When they talked about “Herbie,” it was Herbie Hancock. When they talked about “Art,” they meant bandleader Art Blakey. When they talked about “Keith,” it wasn’t about either of the two Keith Browns in the room, though both are accomplished musicians; they were remembering their times with Keith Jarrett. They exchanged stories about the challenges of backing legendary but sometimes unpredictable vocalists like Nina Simone and Betty Carter, as well as Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams.
Mabern was in town for a show at the Square Room, sponsored by the Knoxville Jazz Festival, the following night. He just turned 76, but talking to Brown, with half a dozen others listening in, he seemed like an enthusiastic kid. Though not always a frontman, Mabern was at the white-hot center of New York’s hard-bop scene from the late ’50s on. In clubs like Birdland and the Blue Note, he played alongside Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Rollins, and Wes Montgomery. He recorded with Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, Freddy Hubbard, and his longtime colleague, trumpeter Lee Morgan. Mabern was present when Morgan was shot to death during a nightclub gig in 1972, but the pianist didn’t talk about that last night. He was enjoying the evening with an old friend.
Keith Brown’s trio, true to form, changed out several times during the night with talented and mostly young locals. Saxophonist Jamel Mitchell joined them for several songs, and keyboardists Emily Mathis and Tamara Brown, Keith’s wife, who also sang a little, added their own styles to the evening.
After finishing his pasta, Mabern was coaxed up from the table, as Keith Brown, who has known Mabern since childhood, stepped away from the keyboards. Mabern sat down for a joyful 15-minute rendition of a piece he called “Bobby Billy Jimmy Lee Boo,” pronounced fast, his improvised tribute to some of his jazz heroes. Mabern’s improvisations included a few quotes and jokes and stunts and flourishes that few others could imitate. He never had formal training, and his style is idiosyncratic, his own and no one else’s.