Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Mobley, Hank (Henry)
Tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley may have rode the middle – his sound was less aggressive than John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, yet warmer than Paul Desmond or Stan Getz. But in many ways, his understated approach struck a sweet spot: as an original Jazz Messenger and one of Blue Note Records' most prolific artists, his laid-back sound became a hallmark of hard bop and post bop.
Henry "Hank" Mobley was born on July 7th, 1930 in Eastman, Georgia, and spent his childhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Mobley's family was full of piano players, including his mother, grandmother, and uncle. However, he showed little interest as a child in carrying on the tradition. “When I was about eight they wanted me to play the piano but I wanted to play cops and robbers,” he said in a 1973 interview.
Mobley began to play the alto saxophone around age sixteen with money he saved from working at a bowling alley, and he made quick progress. He received encouragement from his uncle Dave, who also played six different instruments as well as the piano. Mobley said this uncle introduced him to the work of Lester Young, who became one of his strongest early influences.
Mobley began freelancing around Newark, New Jersey when was in his late teens. After the emergence of Charlie Parker, Mobley switched to the tenor saxophone. His first break came in 1950, when he composed and toured with rhythm 'n blues artist Paul Gayten. After his association with Gayten, Mobley returned to Newark and soon enough landed a gig playing with Max Roach, a job which lasted through 1953. He also worked with Dizzy Gillespie during this time on the trumpeter’s albums Afro, Diz and Getz, and Dizzy with Strings. He also had an opportunity to play with Duke Ellington’s band for two weeks.
In 1954, Mobley joined pianist Horace Silver’s band playing in Harlem and later that year they became known as the Jazz Messengers. Their first album from late 1954, Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, is full of songs which laid the groundwork for the "hard bop" sound which emerged in the latter half of the 1950s. Mobley composed the song “Hankerin’ for the album, and laid some wonderful solo work on this piece over a blistering Art Blakey drum beat.
Mobley and Silver became close collaborators, and continued to work together after the disbanding of the original Jazz Messengers. Silver and Blakey appeared on Mobley’s debut album as a leader, Hank Mobley Quartet for Blue Note, which was released in early 1955.
Mobley appeared on many of Silver’s solo releases for Blue Note, including 1956's Six Pieces of Silver, where he can be heard on the songs “Senor Blues" and “Cool Eyes." On 1957's The Stylings of Silver. he can be heard on “My One and Only Love."
For the balance of the 1950s, Mobley accelerated his activity as both a leader and as a sideman. As a leader, he released additional albums for Blue Note, and like many Blue Note artists also as a sideman on releases by others signed to the label, including Jackie McLean, Art Farmer, Lee Morgan, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Drew, and Curtis Fuller.
Mobley came into his own as both a soloist and a leader in the 1960. That year, he released Soul Station, an album which featured Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Blakey on drums. Another song of note on this release is “This I Dig of You.
In 1961, Mobley he was hired to join trumpeter Miles Davis's group. This post Kind of Blue quintet made several magnificent recordings for Columbia that year, which include Someday My Prince Will Come,Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk.
As has so often been the case in jazz, Mobley's greatest artistic achievement went largely unnoticed by critics, who at the time viewed him merely as a lesser replacement for his predecessor in the Davis band, Coltrane, or the era's other tenor titan, Sonny Rollins. Mobley's tenure with Davis lasted about a year.
“When I left Miles, I was so tired of music, the whole world man. I just went back to drugs,” Mobley later recalled. Mobley spent a brief period locked up for narcotics in the late fifties, and wound up getting arrested again in 1964, and spent more time in prison. However, he managed to remain active whenever he could. He performed extensively with trumpeter Lee Morgan, and he made memorable sideman appearances on albums by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist Grant Green, and drummer Elvin Jones.
In 1967, Mobley went to London and performed a nearly seven-week run Ronnie Scott’s nightclub. This was his first trip outside of the United States. While in Europe, Mobley stayed in France for an extended time, and played with Ben Webster and Ornette Coleman. His only album for Blue Note during this period, The Flip, was recorded in Paris in 1969. Alfred Lion flew over from the states to help supervise the session.
Mobley stayed in Europe until the early 1970s. Upon his return to the United States, he played at Slugs in New York City. One of the last albums Mobley recorded was in 1972 with Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins. Mobley retired from music in mid 1970s due to respiratory problems though he worked sparingly up to his death. His last album appearance was in 1980 on pianist Tete Montoliu’s I Wanna Talk About You with Al Foster on drums and George Mraz on bass.
Hank Mobley, the quiet giant of the tenor saxophone, died on May 30th, 1986 from pneumonia. While underappreciated during his career, his original yet understated musical conception rewards all who listen. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that he rightfully deserves his place amongst the tenor titans.
Select Discography as Hank Mobley
as Hank Mobley
Messages (Blue Note, 1956) Soul Station (Blue Note, 1960) Another Workout (Blue Note, 1961) No Room for Squares (Blue Note, 1965) The Flip (Blue Note, 1969)
with Horace Silver
Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (Blue Note, 1955) Six Pieces of Silver (Blue Note, 1956) The Stylings of Silver (Blue Note, 1957)
with Miles Davis
Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1961)
Contributor: Jared Pauley