Hank Mobley - Biography
The late jazz critic Leonard Feather famously wrote in 1968 that Hank Mobley was “the middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone.” Feather added, “Hank is the middleweight champion because his sound, as he once put it himself, is ‘not a big sound, not a small sound, just a round sound’ and because, while fads and fancies change, he has remained for some 15 years a consistently successful performer, working almost exclusively as a sideman except on records, and retaining a firm, loyal following.”
The respect that was always due him consistently eluded Mobley during his career. He has been consistently damned with faint praise by jazz critics and historians. Despite the fact that he was a charter member of one of hard bop’s most enduring bands and a skilled purveyor of tough, soulful jazz as a leader with 25 Blue Note albums to his credit, he was never accorded admission to the top echelon of players. A retiring personality, long-term problems with drugs and health, and the lack of a crossover hit like his peer and frequent collaborator Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” all relegated him to the second tier. But Mobley was far more than a second-string player, and his best music – much of which remains in print on CD – is deserving of a closer look.
Even Mobley’s biographer Derek Ansell has observed that very little is known about the saxophonist’s personal life. He was born July 7, 1930, in Eastman, Georgia, and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. His uncle, mother, and grandmother all played the piano, and it became his first instrument; he began playing the saxophone at 16, and modeled himself after Lester Young, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Stitt (who he would replace in an important combo years later).
He got his start with the New Orleans-based bandleader Paul Gayten’s R&B unit, and toured and recorded with the group from 1949 to 1951. He joined some of his old Gayten cohorts in 1953, when he undertook a brief stint as a replacement for Jimmy Hamilton in The Duke Ellington Orchestra. That same year, he made his recording debut with premier bop drummer Max Roach’s group on Debut; Roach wanted to recruit Mobley for a new band he was organizing with trumpeter Clifford Brown, but the tenor man missed the opportunity when he couldn’t be located.
However, after playing regularly with Dizzy Gillespie in 1954, Mobley, then just 23, began working in New York at Minton’s Playhouse, the onetime crucible of bebop, with a quartet led by pianist Horace Silver. The group lineup solidified with the addition of trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Doug Watkins, and the volcanic drummer Art Blakey. Recording as Horace Silver & The Jazz Messengers, this unit cut historic 1954-55 sessions that included Silver’s timeless hard bop compositions “Doodlin’” and “The Preacher.” Mobley remained with The Jazz Messengers through 1956, by which time Blakey had assumed leadership of the previously cooperative band.
Mobley debuted as a leader with the LP Hank Mobley Quartet (1955), cut for Blue Note with his Messengers colleagues Silver, Watkins, and Blakey. Through ’56 he worked principally as a sideman, recording with Dorham, Silver, trombonist J.J. Johnson, trumpeter Donald Byrd, and (alongside tenor titan John Coltrane) pianist Elmo Hope. In mid-1956 he began to play regularly as a leader or co-leader, heading up sessions for Prestige and Savoy. Late that year he cut his second session as a leader for Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff’s Blue Note, continuing an association that would run until nearly the end of his studio career; at around that same time, he cut a pair of hard-hitting sessions for Savoy and Blue Note with the Philadelphia trumpet phenom Lee Morgan, with whom he would be paired frequently for much of the next decade.
Through 1960, Mobley recorded several rewarding albums in his own name for Blue Note in quartet, quintet, and septet lineups, and guested with a host of top-notch hard bop names, including Jimmy Smith, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Clark, Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd, and Freddie Hubbard. His output slowed in 1959, thanks to an increasingly debilitating addiction to heroin.
However, in 1960 and ’61, Mobley turned in what most observers call the best studio performances of his career as a leader. A February 7, 1960, date with Blakey and two members of Miles Davis’ band, pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers, resulted in the Blue Note album Soul Station (1960). Jazz historian and producer Bob Blumenthal, who annotated the CD re-release of the session, noted that this coolly played program of funky bop “announced the second and most consistently satisfying phase in Mobley’s career.” It was succeeded by the much-admired Roll Call (1961), which expanded the Soul Station band to a quintet with the addition of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
In early 1961, Mobley replaced Sonny Stitt (who had in turn replaced Coltrane) in the saxophone chair of Miles Davis’ working quintet. Working in Davis’ celebrated group was widely viewed as the most coveted assignment in jazz, but Mobley’s tenure with the volatile trumpeter would be short-lived. He appears on a handful of tracks on Someday My Prince Will Come (1961) and on two indifferently received LPs recorded live at the Blackhawk in San Francisco. He also took part in a New York big-band Davis event conducted by Gil Evans, issued as Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (1961). Davis later wrote scathingly in his autobiography that he found the music he made with Mobley boring, because the tenor player “didn’t stimulate my imagination.”
In the midst of his time with Davis, he led a session with Kelly, Chambers, stalwart Blue Note guitarist Grant Green, and Davis’ former drummer Philly Joe Jones. Blue Note collected some of the tracks as the highly prized Workout (1961); some unreleased music from the session was tardily issued as Another Workout (1985).
Mobley disappeared off the scene for an entire year, resurfacing in early 1963 for a quintet session with trumpeter Donald Byrd and pianist Herbie Hancock that would surface on three different Blue Note albums. His sessionography would be discontinuous through the end of his association with Blue Note. He was most rewardingly paired during this time on a number of meat-and-potatoes hard bop sessions with Lee Morgan, including his own No Room For Squares (1964), Dippin’ (1965), and A Caddy For Daddy (1966) and Morgan’s Cornbread (1965) and Charisma (1966).
Mobley’s recording career slowly petered out at the end of the ‘60s: he made five sessions in 1967, just one in 1968, three (including a couple of unexpected dates in Paris with avant garde saxophonist Archie Shepp) in 1969. His final session for Blue Note in 1970 went unreleased; just two studio appearances followed it. Ongoing drug problems and a pair of lung operations virtually ended Mobley’s work as a musician in 1975; at his last session in 1980, he cut a single track with pianist Tete Montoliu.
Mobley died nearly desitute in Philadelphia from pneumonia at the age of 55 on May 30, 1986. He said in a 1979 interview, “It’s hard for me to think of what could be and what should have been.”