Music Monday: Herbie Mann

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Herbie Mann playing his flute

On April 16, 1930, Herbie Mann was born. Mann was a jazz flutist whose blending of jazz with other styles was often looked down on by jazz purists, but made him one of the best-selling jazz musicians of his era.

Mann's professional career began when he was still a teenager, playing in bands at resorts in the Catskills. In the early 1950s, he played the saxophone in military bands while serving in the US Army. After finishing his service and returning to the United States, Mann decided that there was too much competition as a saxophonist, and began learning to play the flute. He learned quickly, and was offered a job with the singer Carmen McRae before he felt fully proficient on the instrument. He told McRae that his flute was being repaired, and spent his first two weeks with her playing the saxophone at night, while secretly working during the day to bring his flute skills up to par.

Mann continued to play with various singers and bands throughout the 1950s, occasionally leading ensembles and recording on his own. He performed on a State Department-sponsored tour of Africa, which started his interest in music and rhythms from around the world. Afro-Cuban jazz was the focus of his 1959 album Flautista and of 1960's The Common Ground.

A 1961 tour of Brazil led to several albums of Brazilian jazz and bossa nova, beginning with Brazil, Bossa Nova, & Blues; he continued exploring the musical world in the 1966 album Impressions of the Middle East.

Mann's explorations turned to contemporary American popular music in 1969 with his album Memphis Underground, which included his versions of R&B hits "Hold On, I'm Comin'" and "Chain of Fools." Jazz purists were horrified; Mann would later remember the era by saying, "I was the Kenny G of the sixties." Over the next decade, Mann would continue recording jazz versions of songs written by (among others) The Beatles, John Fogerty, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Donovan, and Paul Williams. He even accomplished the rare feat of breaking into the pop charts with two top 40 hit singles in the 1970's – "Hi-Jack" in 1975 and "Superman" in 1979.

Mann was unusually prolific as a recording artist in the 1970s, releasing 20 albums. He slowed down significantly in the 1980s, with only 6 albums. By the late 1980s, he was returning to the Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music from early in his career; his 1990 album Caminho de Casa was greeted by critics as some of his best work in years. Mann never gave up his interest in genre-crossing, though, and in 1996, he collaborated with the British avant-garde pop band Stereolab on a performance of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "One Note Samba" for the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Rio.

Mann continued to record and perform until shortly before his death in 2003. In addition to the albums linked above, more of Mann's music is available for streaming at Freegal and Hoopla.