Next week, pianist Junior Mance will come here as the first star act of the new Hot Jazz season. He will team up with Japanese violinist Michi Fuji (left) and bass player Hide Tanaka (right), at gigs in the country from October 14 to 19. The Jerusalem Theater concert will take place four days after Mance turns 85, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
“The last thing my father said before he died at age 101 was, ‘Son, if you love your work as a musician, don’t ever retire,’” says Mance. “I love what I do, so I’m not thinking of giving this up. My dad also said that age is nothing but a number.”
And why should he? Mance is still performing and recording at a rate that many musicians half his age would find taxing. He is also still trying to broaden his horizons rather than stick to – albeit well-earned – comfort zones. The fact that his cohorts on the current venture come from the other side of the world seems to be a valid case in point.
However, he is not one for looking to add exotic coloring to his already sumptuously sequined 65-year career.
“Michi and Hide are just good musicians,” he states matter-offactly.
“That’s why I play with them. I don’t really take an interest in where a musician comes from, as long as they’re good.”
Nor is the octogenarian inclined to look down from his venerable age at his much younger colleagues. In her 20s, Fuji could be the pianist’s granddaughter, but he says that equality is the order of the day in the trio.
“We are all leaders,” says Mance. “That’s why the record is called The Three of Us.”
Throughout his illustrious career, Mance has mixed it with some of the greatest jazz artists.
His jam-packed résumé features synergies with the likes of be-bop founding-fathers alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk, and alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. In fact, Mance owes more to Adderley than just giving his incipientmusical career a push in the right direction.
“Cannonball saved my life,” says Mance. “If he hadn’t been around, I would have gone to Korea to fight in the war, and maybe I wouldn’t have come back alive. Who knows?” Adderley and Mance were in the US Army in the early 1950s when their paths crossed.
“I was on guard duty one evening – we had two hours on and an hour off – and during an hour off, I heard some music coming from a building on the base. I was at Fort Knox [in Kentucky]. So I went along, and there were these guys playing jazz with Cannonball,” he recounts.
“I started playing piano when I was five,” he explains. “The previous occupants of our apartment didn’t have the money to move their piano, so we got it.
When I was five, I asked my dad if I could start playing.”
So when the opportunity arose to strut his stuff to Adderley, Mance grabbed it with both hands and ended up not shipping out to the Far East.
“Cannonball asked me if I could play, and I said yes. After I played a bit, he said he wanted me in his army band, and he really did sort it out. I was really happy not to go to Korea,” he admits.
The classic jazz trio is based on the piano, bass and drums constellation, so Mance’s current lineup – with violin instead of drums – is an intriguing proposition. Even given the fact that the piano is basically a percussive instrument and the double-bass player can also lay down rhythm lines, it still makes for an interesting instrumental combination.
“I don’t need a drummer. I’ve been in this business a long time. I can make up for a drummer.
Anyway, the violin adds a lot to our sound and the way we play, and the bass and I play like a rhythm section. And if you listen to my latest record, that explains just what I get out of the violin. It sounds great,” he says.
Mance himself clearly sounded great when he was a youngster, and probably got the idea for a drumless band several decades ago.
“[Iconic saxophonist] Lester Young hired me,” says Mance. That was in 1949, two years after the pianist joined saxophonist Gene Ammons’s band. “We had no drummer with Gene, either,” he continues. “Lester came to hear me play one night, and after the set he said to me – I remember how he put it; it was so funny – ‘I liked the way you play, and if you play like that all the time, if you’re interested, there’s a place in my band for you.’ Did I accept? Hell, yes!” Not surprisingly, Mance’s berth with Young was a formative experience.
“He never complained about anything,” says the pianist. “If something wasn’t being played right, he’d listen for a while, and then he’d play in such a way as to get you back on track.”
Young was also adept at throwing his relatively inexperienced sidemen into the deep end.
“The first time I played with him, he called a record date, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do on this?’ He didn’t say a word during the record date. There was one tune that didn’t have a title. So when the sound engineer asked him what the name was, Lester just looked round the room and then at me and said, ‘Oh, that’s called ‘June Bug.’ That was after me!” he says.
With Young, it was very much a matter of sink or swim.
“He’d call a tune at a gig, and I’d just jump right in,” Mance continues.
“I learned a lot from that.”
Mance has a definitively sunny disposition, and that is something he shared with late great trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
“Playing with joy is part of it,” says Mance. “You’ve got to feel something to play well. You can get a job anywhere, but loving what you’re doing and playing well, that’s real happiness. I learned that from Dizzy.”
Many years his junior, Fuji and Tanaka probably also learn a lot from performing and recording with a man who has been tickling the ivories with the best of ’em for 65 years. Mance remains ever humble.
all learn from each other,” he declares. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Junior Mance will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on October 14 at 9 p.m. (tickets: (02) 560-5755 and 1-700-500-039); Zappa Club in Herzliya on October 15, doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m. (tickets: 1-700-500-039); Einan Hall, Modi’in on October 16 at 9 p.m. (tickets: (08) 9737-333 and 1-700-500-039);Tel Aviv Museum of Art on October 17 at 9 p.m. and October 18 at 9:30 p.m. (tickets: (03) 573-3001 and 1-700-500-039); Beit Abba Khoushy House in Haifa on October 19 at 9 p.m. (tickets: (04) 822-7850).