Jazz musicians fomented the 1940s bebop revolution at a Harlem haven known as Minton’s Playhouse, and Gildo Mahones was in the thick of the action. He wasn’t a foundational figure in modern jazz, but as a rising young pianist he landed a plumb gig in Minton’s house trio in 1949 with bassist Percy Heath (who went on to fame in the Modern Jazz Quartet) and seminal bebop drummer Kenny Clarke, which meant accompanying a steady parade of masters, including Charlie “Bird” Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.
“I was in fast company, and I was trying to get it together,” says Mahones, 84, who makes his Bay Area debut under his own name Sunday afternoon at the Jazzschool with veteran bassist Glenn Richman and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte, an increasingly valuable player on the Bay Area scene. “I was learning something new every day. They’d start calling songs I’d never heard of and I’d go home every night and woodshed.”
From a three-year stint with tenor sax legend Lester Young to a five-year-run with vocalese stars Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (later Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan), Mahones went on to work with jazz’s most formidable figures. His exacting taste, beautiful touch, stylistic versatility and buoyant sense of swing kept him steadily employed, but with few recordings under his own name Mahones has often been overlooked by American jazz fans (while working long stints in Japan as a leader). Sunday’s performance is his first gig in the region since he quietly relocated from Pasadena to Oakland two years ago to join his family in the East Bay.
Born to Puerto Rican parents in New York City, Mahones grew up speaking Spanish and didn’t start to learn English until enrolling in kindergarten. He took his first piano lesson at the age of seven and bailed out after one week when his teacher rapped his knuckles for missing a note. But his mother was determined that he or his sister learn the instrument, and several years later when an upstairs neighbor moved out and left a piano behind she made sure the Mahones appropriated the abandoned property.
“I had been saving money to buy a Brownie camera, selling newspapers,” he recalls. “She took the money and hired two guys to move the piano. I didn’t like that. I used to pass it every day on the way out the door to school every morning and for weeks I wouldn’t touch it. She didn’t say a word.”
But one day he gave in to an inclination and played the scale he recalled from his first lesson and then started casually pecking out melodies. When his stepfather brought home a friend for dinner one night the fellow merchant seaman sat down at the instrument and offered up accomplished impressions of top-shelf players like Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson.
“I had heard their records on the radio, but it’s very different when you hear the music in person,” Mahones says. “That piqued my interest. He agreed to give me lessons every time he came through town, and he’d show me those kinds of songs. I progressed pretty quickly.”
In high school he started playing around Harlem with fellow students in a little combo called the Young Dukes of Rhythm modeled after Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five, the hugely popular band that paved way for the post-war rhythm and blues explosion. Just out of high school he landed his first important gig with R&B trumpeter Joe Morris, with whom he toured through the South in 1948 (“That was real strange, another part of the country,” Mahones says).
Drafted into the Army in 1950, Mahones ended up spending more time down south, but was never sent overseas and concluded his service in an Army band. Mustering out in 1953 he quickly found work with Lester Young, playing his first gig with the tenor sax titan at Birdland, the most prestigious jazz club of the day. Dubbed Pres (for President) by Billie Holiday (whom he lovingly christened Lady Day), the cool-toned Young introduced a pervasively influential approach to swing with his fluid phrasing in the 1930s.
Some felt Young’s playing declined in the years before his death in 1959, but “I don’t know what they were talking about,” Mahones says. “He sounded great. He was swinging.” The pianist did have a problem with Young’s famously idiosyncratic terminology, which often left him baffled on the bandstand. “He’d start calling songs, but he had a different title for every song. I didn’t know what he was talking with. Connie Kay had to translate.”
He made his recording debut with Young in the fall of 1953 on a quintet session for Norman Granz’s Norgran label, Here’s Lester, but before that album was released in 1956 he appeared on an excellent album by a rising Count Basie tenor sax star, 1954’s Here Comes Frank Foster (Blue Note). Mahones loved working with Young, but the saxophonist often hit the road as a featured soloist with Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, or just picked up a rhythm section out of town, leaving Mahones and the rest of the band with long gig-less stretches. During one of those dry spells, the pianist joined up with French horn player Julius Watkins and tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse in the excellent but short-lived Les Jazz Modes quintet. At the same time, he freelanced around New York, working with the era’s top saxophonists, from James Moody and Frank Wess to Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Stitt.
In 1959, after Les Jazz Modes disbanded, he was on the road with trombonist Bennie Green in Philadelphia when bassist Ike Isaacs recruited for a rising vocal group featuring Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross. Specializing in vocalese, the art of setting words to previously recorded improvisations, LH&R became a hugely popular act with their ingenious arrangements and intricate lyrics delivered at breakneck tempos.
Mahones performed on half a dozen albums by the group (with both Ross and her replacement after 1962, Yolanda Bavan), including the definitive 1960 albums Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross!: “The Hottest New Group In Jazz” and Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross Sing Ellington (both on Columbia). The group’s sound was so arresting that it proved to be bad for business in Las Vegas, which led to increasingly abbreviated sets at the lounge in the Flamingo Hotel.
“Every time we went on everything would stop,” Mahones says. “The slot machines would stop and people crowded around. The management didn’t like that at all. They said you have to cut down from an hour to 45 minutes. Then they cut it down to 30 minutes, then to 15 minutes, and finally they cut us out completely. People had never heard anything like that before.”
Hendricks put Mahones’ versatility to excellent use when he premiered his musical The Evolution of the Blues Song at the 1960 Monterey Jazz Festival. Featuring blues great Jimmy Witherspoon, gospel belter Hannah Dean, and tenor sax giant Ben Webster, the project revealed the deep, shared African-American roots of gospel, blues and jazz. Mahones was also on hand with LH&R when they participated in the 1961 recording of Dave Brubeck’s jazz musical The Real Ambassadors, which premiered the following year at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The early 1960s marked the pianist’s most prolific period as a recording artist. He made several fine albums of his own for Prestige, and was widely sought after as a sideman, appearing on strong sessions led by guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpeter Ted Curson, saxophonist Frank Wess, and my favorite, The Blues Book by the powerhouse tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin.
With the jazz scene under siege by the British Invasion, Mahones moved out to Los Angeles in 1965 to perform with Joe Williams and Harry “Sweets” Edison at the Pied Piper on Crenshaw Avenue, a gig that led to more than a year of steady work at the club with former Count Basie vocalist O.C. Smith, altoist Sonny Criss, and Lou Rawls, who ended up hiring him as music director for several years.
With no shortage of first class pianists vying for sideman work in Southern California (his peers included Jimmy Rowles, Gerald Wiggins, Dolo Coker, Ronnell Bright, Phil Moore, and Jack Wilson), Mahones stayed reasonably busy. He worked regularly at the Lighthouse with traveling saxophone stars, joined tenor saxophonist Harold Land’s stellar band with trumpeter Blue Mitchell and Billy Higgins, and recorded a series of albums with the criminally overlooked vocalist Lorez Alexandria. It’s not that he didn’t want to lead his own band or make his own albums (several Japanese CDs have yet to be released in the US).
“I always wanted to do my own thing,” Mahones says. “But you have to go where the work is. I’m hoping the Jazzschool concert leads to other stuff. This should be interesting, and should open up some doors.
For information on the Gildo Mahones concert, visit Jazzschool.
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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