Herbie Mann: An Amalgamation of Everything
JAA: Of the many different bags you've been into, I discovered there were a couple you said you would have liked to have gotten into, but never did. An example is American Indian music. Another example is East Indian music. And you once considered contacting George Harrison to do something together.
HM: Well, first of all, I found that American Indian music was both rhythmically and harmonically very simple, and there wasn't' much to do with it. I listened to a couple of things. Of course, somebody's going to say, "Well, you haven't heard the northern tribes of northern Michiganwe played bebop long before Charlie Parker." But I found that it wasn't very interesting for me.
As far as East Indian musicit was just one of the many spices that I thought I would like to get into. I would have loved to have played with somebody like Ravi Shankar, or L. Shankar, the guy with John McLaughlin. I would've loved to have played with Shakti. But you're talking about a modal kind of musica one-chord kind of drone. And that does tend to get kind of monotonous, unless you're very stoned. If you're very stoned, anything sounds great.
JAA: From what I've read, it seems that you came into playing fluteas your main instrumentby accident. After you got out of the Army, you were in a big band in Brooklyn, and the drummer in the group recommended you to Matt Matthews, the Dutch jazz accordionist, as a flautist. You said you had never played jazz flute in your life. Do I have this story straight?
HM: Well, first of all, it was a small group in probably a little club on Flatbush AvenueFlatbush Avenue and Avenue U. I think it was called the Airport Inn, or something like that. Floyd Bennett Field was right down the road. Matt Matthews was working in the next club, and Carmen McRae was the intermission singer. He was looking for Sam Most, because Sam had already made a record, Undercurrent Blues. The drummer who was in my band knew I was looking for a job because I just got out of the Army. So, I faked my way through it. I told him my flute was being repaired, and I learned the arrangements on saxophone and clarinet. I'd come home every night and try to improvise on them. I'd been playing the flute, but I'd just been playing Latin music, you know, or in the Army I played kind of classical music. I played piccolo in the marching band.
While I was in the Army, I knew I had to do something else. My feeling was, OK, if I was to the point where I was almost as good as Stan Getz or Al Cohn or Zoot Sims, so what? I'd still be just as good as Al Cohn, Stan Getz, or Zoot Sims. I wanted more for myself. I knew that I had to do something else, and then this opportunity came along, and I said, "It's worth a shot, because nobody else is doing it." The amazing thing was, as amateurish and mediocre as I played, I started getting great reviews, because it was like a freak. I played with the Pete Rugolo band, and there, in the band, was Doug Mettome, Davey Schildkraut, all kinds of players, and I used to get all the rave reviews. I didn't play anything as well as the rest of them, but nobody had heard this instrument before, so that's how it developed.
JAA: On your very first album for Bethlehem Records, Herbie Mann Plays (1954) you said in the liner notes, "A group that has a flute in it should be a light, swinging, happy- sounding one; these are the qualities of the instrument."
HM: That was at the time. . . The reason I said it should be light and swinging was because that was all I could play light and swinging. I had no chops. I had no sound. I had to have guitar and brushes and play that way. I say that a flute is equal to any other instrument, and depending on your moods, once you have full control of the instrument, you can play anything. And I have since then. At the time, that was merely a plea for everybody to play that quietly, because I couldn't play any stronger.
JAA: In a 1968 Downbeat interview, you quite accurately predicted the impact of the jazz/rock movement. You always seem to be on top of new trends. By coming back to a little straight- ahead jazz, do you see that as a marked trend?
HM: No, no.
JAA: The Brazilian thing maybe?
HM: It's not clear cut to me. Remember that none of those guesses of mine were ever really guesses. They were always calculated based on what I thought was just very logical. I said the same thing with the bossa nova. I said it was going to be the next big thing, and it was.