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Classic Herbie Mann

By Published: March 5, 2004

HM: Yes, I was diagnosed with an inoperable prostate cancer three and a half years ago. I did three months of radiation, and for a while it lowered my PSA. If your count is below three or four—if you're 40 or under—it's okay, but if it starts going up, then it's a flag and means [the cancer has] metastasized. [The cancer had] spread into my pelvis. I've just finished four months of chemotherapy and the chemotherapy worked. I'm officially in remission, which I'm very happy about. But when I first got cancer, after the initial shock and the fear and paranoia and crying and all that goes with cancer—that word means to most people ultimate death—I decided to see what I could do to take that negative and use it in a positive way. I recently formed a foundation to raise awareness for prostate cancer. I feel it's very necessary that men be more aware about prostate cancer and their health in general. Think about it: Look at the strides of awareness and treatment and tests that women have had with breast cancer, that the gay community has had with AIDS, because they're active and they talk about it. But most men don't talk about prostate cancer. And I think it's very necessary that every male 40 years and older [think about it]. You need that annual test, which is just a blood test.

BD: A very simple one.

HM: I always say, if you keep your head in the sand, you don't know where the kick's coming from. The test is no big deal, 10 deep breaths. Early detection [is important]. Prostate cancer is treatable. So I formed this foundation, and the idea is to raise money to do free concerts. My first event was June 16, Juneteenth, in Texas. And for those of you who don't know about Juneteenth: Six months after slavery was abolished, the message finally got to Texas. The powers that be really didn't want this information to get to Texas too soon. So instead of calling Pony Express, they called Slug Express.

BD: You would think, even in 1863, the lines of communication would move a little faster than that.

HM: Not if you're going backward. I'm hoping to do events in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and in San Francisco and Chicago. That's the whole purpose of the foundation.

BD: To raise awareness.

HM: To get people to know that you can be part of the concept of taking care of yourself.

BD: You don't have to have things just done to you.

HM: That's right.

BD: My father told me a lot about this. He is a cancer survivor, 14 years, lung cancer. And he said that besides the radical chemotherapy and radiation treatment—which he also went through back in the mid-'80s — he said that the most important part of his treatment was in his head, maintaining a positive attitude. He would do things like wear a fright wig to group therapy to make his fellow patients laugh.

HM: The reality is that what you find out is that your head is the medicine. If your head is not in the right place and you don't think positively, all the medicine technology in the world is not going to work. You know, my mother is 95 and lives alone in Florida. So, you know, I ain't ready to throw in the towel. I still have lots of music that I want to do.

BD: You're the one artist who didn't come out with a Duke Ellington tribute album last year.

HM: One of the advantages of not having a record contract is that you can make your own mistakes, you don't need somebody else to organize them for you. I mean, there were some incredible records. Herbie Hancock's Gershwin record was one. I've decided that now that I'm 70, it's time to get serious.

BD: You mean you haven't been for the last 50 years?

HM: No, but the 50 years were basic training. Why do you have to retire at 65? Why can't you start at 70? You know, like wine. Why can't music be that way? My new band, we're playing stuff that's never been done before. People say, "Why are you doing Eastern European music?" My father's father came from Russia; my mother came from Romania. When you get cancer, it's like really time to look at what your life was and is, and I decided that everything I've done so far is not as important as what I'm going to do now.

BD: I'd say that's one of the healthiest attitudes I've ever heard.

HM: Well, I hope so. It's real easy to get great rhythm sections and play all the music that I played, but let's face it...

BD: You can play "Coming Home Baby" for the next 20 years.

HM: Right. I've recorded Latin music. I'm not Latin. I recorded Brazilian music, I'm not Brazilian. I've done soul music and R&B, and I'm not African-American. I finally decided that I'm going to do my roots.

BD: You have been a musician all your life. Has this helped you in your fight with prostate cancer, doing what you really love doing?

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