When Harold Mabern was growing up in Memphis, he had no ambition to become a jazz pianist.

"I didn't choose it; it chose me," says Mabern, a self-taught musician. "I don't know anything about Chopin. I never studied piano. It's a God-given talent."

Many of the homes in his neighborhood had pianos, and one day he heard a young girl playing a song on the black keys called "I Stuck My Dolly in the Mud." Mabern learned it, and soon moved well beyond those black keys.

Those humble beginnings led to one of the greatest careers as a sideman in jazz history. Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan --- Mabern worked with all of them, and many more.

After playing on the Memphis scene as a teenager, Mabern left to attend a conservatory in Chicago, where his sister lived. "But when I got there the money was tight," Mabern says. "My sister said, 'You might as well stay here and see what you can do,' and that's the best thing that ever happened 'cause this music comes from the university of the street."

In Chicago, the music was happening 24/7 and the musicians were supportive of the young pianist. He credits Bill Lee, filmmaker Spike Lee's father, as a mentor.

"He was one of the greatest all-round geniuses ever," Mabern says. "I hung out with him and picked his brain, and that's how I was able to understand the music world. When I left Memphis, I knew maybe 10 songs; when I left Chicago, I knew 500."

Chicago players revered the Great American Songbook, so Mabern studied orchestrations like Nelson Riddle's arrangements on Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours." Mabern taught himself to read music and write arrangements.

Over the next several decades, Mabern played with a who's who of the jazz world: among them, saxophonists Hank Mobley, George Coleman and Jackie McLean; trumpeters Davis, Morgan, Blue Mitchell, and Freddie Hubbard; and guitarists Montgomery, George Benson and Pat Martino.

"No offense to Herbie Hancock, Chick and Keith, but I came up with the greatest musicians of all time," Mabern says.

He also took part in some of the greatest jazz recording sessions in history. Even at the time, he knew it. "I felt it was history," Mabern says. "There was so much camaraderie among the musicians even though, unfortunately, some of them were strung out on drugs. But it didn't affect their musicianship."

One of his favorite albums from that time is Lee Morgan's "The Gigolo," because it's the only documentation of Mabern playing with Wayne Shorter.

"Lee Morgan was so supportive of me," says Mabern. "He treated me like a brother. Lee was a true trumpet genius. That's why Miles loved him. They were the most charismatic trumpet players --- hip without trying to be hip."

Mabern made albums as a leader in the late 1960's and early 1970's, but for long periods of time he was strictly a sideman. "I'm not interested in being a leader," Mabern says. "I like to be a sideman and shine through from the background."

But in recent years, Mabern has recorded as a leader, and he has expanded the songbook to include tunes like Norah Jones's "Don't Know Why" and Steely Dan's "Do It Again."

"I always like to have something on the record for the people," Mabern says. "A lot of guys, especially the young piano players, they go out with these charts that they can't figure out, the folks can't figure out. You've got to entertain like Cannonball did: 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.' "

In This Guide...

  • Jazz Fest Guide: Three thoughts for the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival

    The 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival is here, and with it, a whirlwind of concerts by national, international, and local musicians. It can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned jazz fest fan.

  • Festival Information

    Everything you need to know about tickets, venues, parking, and how to connect with us to make the most of your Jazz Festival experience.

  • Feature: Sasha Berliner Quintet

    When 20-year-old vibraphonist Sasha Berliner received the call, letting her know that she'd won the 2019 LetterOne RISING STARS Jazz Award, she couldn't believe it. "It was a surreal moment," Berliner says.

  • The Players: Friday, June 21

    Teagan and the Tweeds | teaganandthetweeds.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion - Squeezers Stage (Bluesy rock 'n' roll)

  • Profile: Dawn Thomson's Imagine That

    When digging on an artist of two or more disciplines, you have to wonder which one dominates in that artist's heart and head. Dawn Thomson plays it slick and sweet on the guitar.

  • The Players: Saturday, June 22

    Ambassadors Jazztet | armyfieldband.com/about/ensembles/jazz-ambassadors 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Straight-ahead jazz)

  • Interview: The Honey Smugglers

    Blame it on love. Rochester's The Honey Smugglers is here because it's frontman, Brian MacDonald, fell in love.

  • The Players: Sunday, June 23

    Zion Hill Mass Choir 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Gospel)

  • Interview: The Willows

    The voices of Krista Deady, Andrea Gregario and Lauren Pedersen are spun gold, blended so well that they come across as one three-tiered voice. The trio known as The Willows makes other vocalists sound like Edith Bunker.

  • The Players: Tuesday, June 25

    Soul Passenger | soulpassenger.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Rock)

  • The Players: Monday, June 24

    Fred Costello | fredcostello.com 4:30 p.m.| M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (B-3 organ jazz)

  • Feature: Jeff Goldblum & the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra

    When you're known for being chased by dinosaurs and being turning into a giant fly, it's inevitable that you'll have to do the rounds: going on press junkets, shaking babies, kissing hands, and hocking your latest wares -- in this case, a jazz recording. Jeff Goldblum, the actor and Hollywood bon vivant found himself on the Graham Norton Show about a year ago, doing the standard media song-and-dance for the movie "Thor Ragnarok."

  • The Players: Wednesday, June 26

    Herb Smith Freedom Trio | herbtrumpet.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Straight-ahead jazz)

  • Feature: George Coleman Quartet

    In the early 1960's, after saxophonist George Coleman had earned his way to the top of the jazz world playing with Booker Little, Max Roach and Slide Hampton, he was tapped by Miles Davis to play in one of the greatest quintets in the history of jazz. Coleman recorded four seminal albums with Davis: "Seven Steps to Heaven," "My Funny Valentine, "Four," and "Miles Davis In Europe."

  • The Players: Thursday, June 27

    The Buddhahood | thebuddhahood.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Jam-band, world music)

  • Profile: Bill Charlap

    You might say pianist Bill Charlap was born to play standards. His father, Moose Charlap, was a Broadway composer best known for his iconic musical "Peter Pan."

  • The Players: Friday, June 28

    Kansas Smitty's House Band | kansassmittys.com 5:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.: Geva Theatre Center – Wilson Stage | (Straight-ahead jazz)

  • Interview: Cha Wa

    The music of New Orleans band Cha Wa is a party in itself, a joyful collision of brass band music, funk, soul, and Mardi Gras Indian music and culture. The group is led by singer J'Wan Boudreaux and drummer Joe Gelini, both of whom learned from the preeminent musician Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe Golden Eagles and J'Wan's grandfather.

  • The Players: Saturday, June 29

    Acoustic Alchemy | acousticalchemy.co.uk 5:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.: Geva Theatre Center – Wilson Stage | (Smooth jazz)

  • Jazz Fest 2019: CITY's Daily Jazz Blogs

    The 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival runs from Friday, June 21, through Saturday, June 29, and CITY Newspaper will be out every night of the festival, covering multiple shows. Check back each day for reviews, photos and video of each nights festivities.