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The durable Chicago pianist Junior Mance--who sparked many postwar jazz bands, recorded prolifically, and was an influential teacher--has passed away at his home in Manhattan. He’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, but had experienced a brain hemorrhage a month earlier. Mance was 92.
His playing was buoyant and sprightly. Mance had large measures of blues and black church music in his musical vocabulary, but he was also up to the harmonic demands of modern jazz.
Julian Clifford Mance Jr. was born in Chicago and grew up in nearby Evanston. His father was an amateur pianist who played some stride and boogie-woogie. Junior began on the family’s upright at age five. He played his first job at 16 and was suspended from Roosevelt College for playing jazz in the practice rooms.
In 1947, Mance began an association with tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. That same year, Mance made his first recordings with Ammons for Aladdin. Two years later, Lester Young heard Mance and took him on the road. Back in Chicago, Ammons established a band with saxophonist Sonny Stitt that would record liberally for Prestige.
Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins first went to Chicago in the late 1940s. “When Junior got the gig with Gene Ammons,” Rollins says, “everybody was happy about that.” He heard a special quality in Mance’s playing. “Junior had a lot of that old-time religion in his playing,” says Rollins. “He played that gospel block-chord thing; you didn’t hear in modern music.”
Cornetist Bobby Bradford heard the Ammons-Stitt group in Dallas. “Junior was perfect for that band,” Bradford offers. “He could play the bebop tunes, but he could also play the greasy stuff. At the beginning of the evening, the audience wanted to dance. They needed light dance tempos, and ballads and slow blues--at those belly-grinding tempos. Junior had a wonderful sense of rhythmic support in his playing. At about eleven o’clock, Sonny Stitt got out the alto, and he played ‘Cherokee’ at an ungodly fast tempo. But Junior created this rumbling piano platform for him, and it was just marvelous.”
Mance was drafted and sent to Fort Knox. Shortly after, cornetist Nat Adderley wangled his way into his brother Julian’s company. In 1976, Nat recalled: “Cannon had already come home and told me: ‘Man, I gotta cat named Junior Mance in my company; he’s a professional musician. He played with Gene Ammons and Lester Young and Dinah Washington and you ain’t never played with a piano player like that!’”
Back in civilian Chicago, Mance joined the house band at the Bee Hive, with bassist Israel Crosby and drummer Buddy Smith. When the Adderleys starteded their professional band, Mance was a natural fit. Then came his most important musical association.
In 2000, Mance recounted: “When I was with Cannonball, we played opposite Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at Basin St. East. A week later, Dizzy called me to play; Wynton Kelly was sick. Shortly after that, the Adderley band broke up. I saw Dizzy on the street one day and we were just talking a little bit. Out of the blue, he said, ‘Rehearsal’s Wednesday at two o’clock. Don’t be late.’ I stayed with him almost three years.” Stitt shared the front line with Gillespie for a short time. “Dizzy and Sonny played together beautifully,” Mance recalled. “There wasn’t any competition with them; just admiration and friendly competition. Dizzy let everybody in the band play, and he let them be themselves.”
“I learned more,” Mance stated in 2000, “about all aspects of the music from playing with Dizzy than I did any of my teachers. Dizzy taught me how to vamp effectively behind a soloist. If he played something that you couldn’t figure out, he was happy to show you on the piano. I’d go over to his house and we’d spend hours at the piano, and he’d show me different chord substitutions.”
“Dizzy felt that young drummers were cheating the audience when they weren’t playing the bass drum,” Mance continued. “I tell my students the same thing: just let them know where the beat is.”
In 1967, Mance published “How to Play Blues Piano” (Hansen House), and it presaged his career as teacher and mentor at the New School in New York City (1986-2011). Martin Mueller was the Dean of the School of Jazz. “Junior was largely an autodidact,” he relates. “His life experience taught him, so his teaching was a university of the streets, rather than the academy. He took his students into his band when they were ready.” Among the many students that Mance mentored were keyboardists Larry Goldings, Brad Mehldau and Spike Wilner.
“Junior brought the Ellington approach to his classes,” Muller points out. “He let people be themselves, and he passed on the experience of the music, because it had been so good to him.”
Mance was in the revolving personnel of the 100 Golden Fingers piano conclave. He was also in demand on jazz cruises. “Junior was onboard once,” Mueller remembers, “and he played a beautiful rendition of ‘Emily’; that was a song he loved to play. Afterward, an elderly man stepped forward to thank him, and remarked that Junior played the tune at the absolute best tempo. That was Johnny Mandel.”
“Junior was a happy person,” relates Mueller, “and I always heard that in his music. I never saw him in a bad mood.”
Rollins recalls Mance as “a fine gentleman. I’m very sad he’s gone, but he did his work, he influenced a lot of people, had a good career, and he left behind a lot of friends. And I’m one of them.”