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They say "curiosity killed the cat". In 77-year-old jazz artist Junior Mance's case, his inquisitive mind and yen for learning opened up a whole world for him when he was just five-years-old. It also eventually provided him with a career.
"My father used to play stride piano at home and, from the age of five, I'd hop on the piano stool when he was out of the house," recalls the New Yorker who will pay his first visit to Israel between January 10-14 to play a series of gigs around the country. "One day I was playing the piano, trying to figure out chords and stuff, and suddenly I noticed my dad standing there listening to me. I thought I was in trouble, but he just said it was time I had some lessons." In fact Mance's formal piano training didn't start until he was eight, but seven decades on he's still earning his crust from the ivories.
Mance belongs to the generation of jazz musicians who straddle the important transitional period between the more traditional swing rhythms and the modern higher energy bebop vernacular. "I grew up with jazz as a form of dance music," he says. "Even when I was playing bebop with guys like [bebop founding father] Dizzy Gillespie, I also played with dance bands. I have always stayed close to the roots."
If you want to keep tabs on the source of your art form it helps to have been around when the foundations of the modern form of your craft were put in place. "I started out with [saxophonist] Gene Ammons when I was 17," Mance observes. "I'm 77 now, so do the math. You could say I was around at the beginning. I even recorded with [legendary swing-based] saxophonists Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. I think I got heavily into bebop when Charlie Parker was around."
Ask any jazz musician where it all comes from and the answer will invariably be "from the blues." That's where Mance gets his inspiration, and local fans will, no doubt, be enthralled with the Chicago-born and bred pianist's blues-tinged output during his shows here. Today, after six decades of putting out straight-ahead vibes with a whole roster of jazz giants the likes of saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and drummer Max Roach, Mance finds himself back where it all began. Considering he toured extensively with blues queen Dinah Washington back in the Fifties, and grew up in the "northern blues capital" of Chicago, that is hardly surprising.
For the last 18 years, Mance has also been passing on some of his accrued musical wisdom to students on the jazz program at The New School in New York and finds his young disciples eager to delve into the roots. "I now teach the main blues course there," says Mance. "It's a popular course. I have always felt close to the blues so it's a joy for me."
The New School jazz program was jointly established in 1986 by drummer Chico Hamilton and saxophonist Arnie Lawrence. In 1997, after a long playing career in the States, Lawrence moved to Israel to galvanize the local scene. Mance still feels indebted to Lawrence for offering him a teaching position at the New School. "I was walking home one day when I passed a bar where Chico and Arnie were sitting," Mance recalls. "Arnie asked me to join them for a beer and said they wanted me to teach on the new jazz program. I told them I'd never done any teaching, and Arnie just said 'man, you've got the experience.' Well, 18 years on I'm still teaching there, thanks to Arnie."
Mance says he is very impressed with the Israeli students there, one of whom - trombonist Yonatan Wulchuk - will play with him here. "The Israeli students are the best at the school. I think I'm going to enjoy being in Israel and playing with some of your musicians."
Junior Mance will play at the Stricker Auditorium in Tel Aviv on January 10 at 9 p.m.; the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem on January 12 at 9 p.m.; Hemdat Yamim in the Galilee on January 13 at 10 p.m. and Abba Hushi House in Haifa on January 14 at 9 p.m.
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