I don’t recall hearing much about Hank Mobley, until he recorded a certain record album in 1963. But, this was my fault for not listening closely enough to Philly’s all-jazz radio station that prevailed at the time. The station must have played Mobley often, because he was a hot jazz commodity about that time.
The Mobley piece that made me a fan was his composition of “No Room for Squares,” from his album by the same name. The song had a hip title, and it swung mightily. As fate (or a divine hand) would have it, I began my career in radio a year later; and I, too, began to play Hank Mobley records on the air.
Over the years, quite a number of writers have attempted to chronicle and make more understandable the saxophonist’s somewhat enigmatic musical life and times. Some jazz critics may not have mentioned Mobley’s name in the same breath as Getz, Rollins, Coltrane, or those on a lesser ladder rung of jazz tenor giants. But Mobley still had a large fan base, which he’d earned by proving he could play pretty, swing, and more than hold his own when featured on stage and in recording studios with the giants.
Why was a musician of his caliber, who had made music with Horace Silver and Art Blakey in the mid-1950s when they co-led the Jazz Messengers, and had filled in as a temp in Duke Ellington’s Band, worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, and joined Blakey and the Messengers a second time when the legendary drummer had full control of the Jazz Messengers, treated so off-handedly by some critics?
Mobley was a sideman in demand during the latter 1950s and throughout the ‘60s - and many of the jazz giants were proud to have him in their band. The Blue Note label also knew his worth; he was with the label for about 15 years and recorded over 20 albums for them.
So…why wasn’t he more heralded by writers and critics? One supportive writer mentioned that Mobley didn’t have a gimmick—he wasn’t into changing fads or fancies, and didn’t chase success…he simply played, and had come upon a style of his own, and it worked for him despite the non-recognition by others.
Mobley once said his style was “..not a big sound, and not small, but a round sound.”
That’s about what came out of the man’s horn: a round, throaty, distinctive sound…it wasn’t like a whisper, and not like a foghorn, just unlike any other tenor horn at the time; and I have not heard anything similar since.
I met and brought Hank Mobley onstage almost 30 years ago. He was on his last legs at the time. He may have lasted another year after that. He’d had bouts with drugs and he smoked heavily. He passed away at age 55 in Philly; the cause, pneumonia. His living standards had been greatly reduced over time due to his failing health. Some say he was almost a street person.
Whatever measure of success Mobley garnered, he got through his own initiatives. He was born in Eastman, Georgia, and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He beat a childhood ailment which kept him housebound for many months. He was virtually self-taught on the saxophone, which he didn’t start playing until age 16. But in three years, he was playing professionally.
Taking personal trials and tribulations into account, along with the lukewarm appraisals of his artistry by critics, Hank Mobley overcame some major stumbling blocks to acquire a place in the history of jazz music.
You can hear him at his romping best on the CD, No Room for Squares, and a mellower Mobley on the disc, Music for Lovers.
This article is from the April 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.