For the past 40 years, flutist Herbie Mann has taken the instrument in several different directions, performing in a wide variety of musical styles including straight-ahead and soul and pop-jazz, as well as world music, and most recently Eastern European music. A cancer survivor, Mann's latest project is a crusade for prostate cancer awareness.
Brian Delp: Ten years ago you moved out West, to Sante Fe.
Herbie Mann: My wife and I just reached that point that the energy of a big city was not what we enjoyed anymore. We wanted to feel good. [We wanted to] get up at 5:OO in the morning and watch the sun come up and get into a hot tub and see that the sky really is blue. I love everything in the sunlight. At 7,000 feet everything is brighter and clearer. So that was the main reason. I was raised in Brooklyn, and I lived there for 59 years.
BD: Do you still have family there?
HM: My youngest son, who is now the drummer in my band, lives in Brooklyn. My oldest son is about to move out to California, and my daughters are both out of town.
BD: How has living out West affected your music?
HM: I prefer serenity. I've always said, "You don't have to live the blues to play the blues." It still amazes us when we drive around, and we look around and say, "We live in the West." When you live in the city, you think you're going to live there your whole life.
BD: Tell me about your 70th birthday celebration. How were the crowds at the Blue Note?
HM: Opening night was great. I invited a lot of my friends to come.
BD: Who played with you?
HM: My new band is Gil Goldstein on accordion and keyboards, Bruce Dunlap on guitar, Paul Solokow on bass, my son Geoff Mann on drums, and I just added a zimbolum player.
BD: What's that?
HM: It's an Eastern European keyboard that's played with mallets. The music we're playing now is based on my heritage, which is Russian, Romanian and Hungarian. We play Brazilian music, which I love, and we play this new music, which I call gypsy jazz, and we play Bill Evans. It's very interesting because we're developing a [sound] that doesn't exist yet.
BD: You've been well known for that for 40 years. After all, if there is a father of world music, Herbie Mann is definitely it.
HM: Well, really, I think Dizzy was there first. Dizzy went to Cuba in the mid-'40s. People say, "Why are you doing all this music?" When I started playing the flute, there was no straight-ahead tradition on jazz flute, other than maybe Waymon Carver with the Chic Webb band. And then it dawned on me that even though there was no tradition for straight-ahead jazz on flute, Latin music, African music, Brazilian music, Indian music, all had the flute as a soloist. That's why I started looking into all those sounds.
BD: And traveled the world to collect knowledge about all of them as well.
HM: If you want to play somebody's music, you'd better go into his house.
BD: You mentioned that you still play Bill Evans. I just played this recording of "Periscope" that you did five years ago at your 65th-birthday celebration at the Blue Note. I also had to play Sarah Vaughan's "He's My Guy." I know we were going to stay away from the older recordings, but that one...
HM: [What an] experience, doing the record. First of all, Sarah did all the head arrangements at the studio on the spot. As she sat down at the piano like in "Lullaby in Birdland" and she said, "Da, da, da, da, daokay, flute, trumpet, saxophone." Yeah, she was an incredible musician.
BD: Indeed, she was, and she really knew what the first instrument was all about. This was a session with Clifford Brown. You don't hear him much on this particular cut, but Clifford Brown was...
HM: Clifford was the highlight of the session, as far as I'm concerned.
BD: You told me earlier that any time you got on the bandstand with Clifford or in the studio with him, everybody just stood back.
HM: It was like playing a basketball game against Michael Jordan. You'd watch him until he'd go past you.
BD: You've dealt with something very serious these last three years.
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 fourif you're 40 or underit'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 cancerthat word means to most people ultimate deathI 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 treatmentwhich 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?
HM: I've always had very strong self-feeling and I've always questioned anybody else's opinions about anything. Being stubborn has helped, being selfish is not a bad thing. Being selfish to me means that you have to look out for yourself and you don't have to sacrifice. You have to be concerned with yourself because if you're not on it all the time, nobody else is going to be. By the time I'm 90, I hope to have it together.