A Conversation with Mike Mainieri

Anthony Smith By

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The following is an excerpt from the chapter "A Conversation with Mike Mainieri" of Masters of the Vibes by Anthony Smith (Marimba Productions, 2017).

So you've been working on a new project this week?

Yes, just finishing some overdubs... it's a project I'm involved in with some friends, but I really can't talk about it right now.


Also, my daughter and I performed at her school this week. She's a harpist and we performed a duet piece at her concert. She's graduating elementary school.

So you were shedding for that?

Yes, we were both shedding.


I've been in New York for a little over a year, Mike. My wife and I moved here with our kids to embrace a new life adventure.

This is the city I love. I was born here.

I grew up in the Bay Area, and Bobby Hutcherson was the guy who first got me excited about the vibraphone.

Bobby's one of my favorite vibes players. My influences go from Lionel Hampton to Red Norvo, to Milt Jackson and Bobby. In that order.

Good, I was going to ask you for your version of the lineage of the instrument in jazz... who you consider the most important figures, and what each of them innovated.

There are some excellent (unheralded) vibraphonists during the instrument's first era who also made contributions, but Hampton was the Louis Armstrong of the vibraphone. I think Hampton made his debut on a Louis Armstrong recording of "Memories of You." Or maybe that was with Benny Goodman. But in any case, I listened to Hampton as a kid. This is going back to the early forties. I was born in '38, and there was always music happening in my house. We were very poor. We didn't have a phonograph, or a phone. We had nothing but we had a radio and big band music was popular at the time.

You lived in the Bronx, right?

Yes, that's where I was born, in a very poor neighborhood. We had a large family living in three rooms. It was the end of the Depression. My father was taking care of not only his mother's family, but his children and our grandparents also. It was busy in our three-room tenement! Nine people were living in there at time. But the wonderful thing about it was that the whole family was into jazz. They were into the Big Band Era, and grew up listening to Duke (Ellington)... as a kid I would get to hear some of the great bands... whatever was happening on the radio, from Tommy Dorsey to Harry James. A little later on, I guess in the mid-forties, we did manage to get a phonograph, and then my step-grandfather, who was a jazz guitarist, began buying records. He was into Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Some of the first records he bought were like, "The Hot Club of France," with Django, and the Basie Band. I started working at the very young age of twelve years old, and made my first professional appearance with my trio on television, on the Paul Whiteman Show when I was fourteen. As I began earning money I started buying records. Of course Hampton was my original influence on vibes, as was Red Norvo, who was one of the first four-mallet vibraphonists. I had this wonderful album which is a classic now, called "Move," with Red Norvo, Tal Farlow and Charles Mingus.

I remember that tune.

Yeah, that was a very cool album. You know, for me to go through six decades, this will be a very long interview! (laughs) Ask me the questions you'd like to ask, otherwise I'll just yack for the next two hours.

Which could be interesting unto itself, but I know what you mean. You mentioned that you started playing gigs when you were twelve. Was that always on vibraphone?

Yes mostly on vibes although I was also playing drums. I studied drums with Ted Reed, tympani with Doc Frieze and vibraphone with Phil Kraus during my teenage years as I was thinking about going to Juilliard... I liked being a bandleader and as you can probably guess, there weren't too many vibraphonists that were sidemen in those days. If you wanted to work you started your own band. It really hasn't changed for vibraphonist after all these years. The nature of the instrument forces you to be a leader. Hampton became a bandleader, Terry, and Red. Milt was the main soloist of the Modern Jazz Quartet, not to take anything away from John Lewis, who was an incredible arranger and composer. When I met Milt, he mentioned he looked forward to playing with his own group where he could really stretch out. But the money was performing with MJQ. It was an incredible quartet but it was more subdued than Milt's groups.

Gary Burton and Bobby also led bands, as well as other vibraphonists during the sixties and seventies. Currently Joe Locke, Stefon Harris and Warren Wolf, who I first heard with Christian McBride's band, is now going out with his own group. That's what you have to do eventually to remain active, although there are exceptions.

I was talking to someone else about this, and the only prominent vibes sideman we could come up with was Steve Nelson.

I saw Steve recently at the Jazz Standard, where he was playing with Chris Potter's large ensemble.

Musically, what was it about the vibes that attracted you? What led you to decide, "This is my instrument." It's a very personal thing for everyone. It's a unique instrument we play, not many people play it, and even fewer go on to make a whole career out of playing it, like you have. What initially led you to that decision? What was it about the vibraphone?

My story is probably not like most vibraphonists. My mother was a very strong-willed woman and I credit her for foresight and tenacity. She listened to a radio show broadcast from Chicago featuring vibraphonist Marjorie Hyams.

She played with Shearing.

She did, but she had her own group and her own radio show. My mother loved the melodious sound of the vibes. I was taking music lessons at the time at Mr. Shiller's music school. We were just a bunch of kids from the neighborhood whose parents wanted them to stay out of trouble. I was asked to play orchestra bells, piano and other percussion. I was about eight or nine years old. That was my introduction to the use of mallets by playing bells, and a tiny little xylophone.

My mother asked my father, "Should we buy Michael a vibraphone?" He replied, "Are you nuts? It's an expensive instrument. We can't afford it." So she went out to work in a sweatshop for two years, saved enough money and bought me my first vibraphone for $125. It was a two-and-a-half octave Deagan. It was built during the war and the resonators were made out of cardboard, as there was a shortage of metal during the war. I had that instrument until recently, but unfortunately it was ruined in a flood. Anyway, my mother said, "I'd like you to play this instrument. I said, "Okay!" She found a teacher for me, way down in the Bowery. His name was Lem Leach, and he was a fantastic vibes player, but completely alcoholic—to the point that he could barely function. She would haul me down to the Bowery a couple times a week. We took three elevated trains from the Bronx to get there! Knowing Lem would inevitably have the shakes, she'd bring a bottle of wine that my grandfather had made, go in first to wake him up, make some coffee to get him sober, pay him a couple of bucks and say, "Give Michael a lesson."

I already knew my major, minor, whole tone and diminished scales from my piano studies—which was helpful. Lem immediately started me off with four mallets, and his really weird four-mallet grip, where the outer mallet is placed between the pinky and ring finger. That was the way he played. He started me right off with standards, first lesson. "Tea for Two." II-V's. He wrote out a couple improvisational riffs that I would practice over the II-V's, and I studied with him from eleven to about thirteen years old. I was also schooled by my step-grandfather, who was a very good guitarist. Very hip. He knew all the chord changes, substitutions and re-harmonizations. He would test me. "Okay Mike, "Body and Soul..." what are the chords to the bridge? Okay, if you flat the ninth and add the thirteenth, what four notes would you play?" He taught me to learn the bridge first, because in most cases you only play it once, as opposed to the verse, which is typically played three times.


He gave me little tips like that.

How old were you then?

Twelve or thirteen. I also had an uncle who tap danced with my dad (they had a small time Vaudeville act). This uncle could improvise on like five instruments, and when he visited us, he'd walk over to the vibes and start improvising. He was really into Hampton, and what really turned me on was when I bought my first 33 RPM record of Lionel Hampton and the All Stars, where Hamp plays "Stardust." I memorized Hampton's entire solo, which was in my estimation one his greatest solos. I still have the record. Loved every solo on that record. Such incredible heart and humor. Hamp begins his solo in single time, then doubles it up and by the fourth chorus you can hear his foot stomping in triple time. When the horns enter on the last chorus, I get goose bumps.

As an aside, I never dreamt I'd get a chance to perform with Charlie Shavers later in my career. I also began memorizing solos from various records by ear, by putting the needle on and off the record until I had them down, or wore out the record.

Did you always learn vibes solos, or did you do other instruments also?



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