BROOKLYN — Herbie Mann was born Herbert Jay Solomon in Brooklyn on April 16, 1930, son of Harry C. and Ruth (Brecher) Solomon. He expressed his love of music by using the only resources available — pots and pans. In an attempt to pacify disgruntled neighbors, his mother tried to rechannel his musical interests by taking him, at the age of nine, to the Paramount Theatre where Benny Goodman and his Orchestra was a stage attraction. It worked, and two weeks later Herbie had a clarinet. Though the academics of music were never appealing to Herbie, his love of music and playing it turned his focus eventually to the tenor saxophone and later to that instrument with which he’s been so identified — the flute. By age 14, still a student at Abraham Lincoln High School, he was playing the sax at gigs in the Catskills. In 1948 he entered the U.S. Army where he spent nearly four years in Trieste, Italy, playing with the 98th Army Band.
Out of the Army and back on the New York music scene, he worked hard at carving out a place for himself. However, like so many other tenor saxophone players of that time, Herbie’s style was derivative of Lester Young’s, so it was difficult to stand out from the rest. When the Dutch accordionist, Matt Matthews, told him he was looking for a jazz flute player for the first album by the up-and-coming Carmen McRae, Herbie immediately jumped at the opportunity and spent days “woodshedding” before going into the studio. With this opportunity he was able to distinguish himself from other players as a flutist, of which there were only a handful.
Herbie’s reputation as a flutist took a distinctive turn in 1958, when he followed legendary jazz D.J. Symphony Sid Torin’s suggestion that he add a conga player to his group. This added rhythmic element boosted Herbie’s popularity and the list of Latin percussionists who played with him in the late 50s and 60s, read like a “Who’s Who” of the genre — Candido, Ray Barretto, Olatunji, Potato Valdes, Willie Bobo and others. Audiences around the world loved the sound. It was during his period that he recorded the legendary Herbie Mann at the Village Gate album and did a monthlong tour of Africa for the State Department.
Despite his increased popularity, Herbie felt frustrated by the simplicity of the Latin and African melodies and the monotony of their rhythms. So, in 1961 when he heard about a tour of American players going to Brazil, he convinced his manager, Monty Kay, that he had to go, too. This experience changed his musical life more than any other experience before or since. At last here were complex, beautiful melodies supported by compelling rhythms!
One trip to Brazil wasn’t enough, so soon after his return he convinced his record company, Atlantic, to sponsor an extended visit to Brazil to record his next album. On this trip he met many of Brazil’s then emerging musical talents including Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Baden Powell.
The record releases that followed, Do the Bossa Nova with Herbie Mann and Herbie Mann Joao Gilberto Antonio Carlos Jobim helped usher in the Bossa Nova craze. These were the first recordings made that combined Brazilian musicians and their music with an American jazz player. When the disco craze hit, Herbie made three albums of disco on Atlantic.
Recordings have included Nirvana, Impressions of the Middle East, The Wailing Dervishes, Push Push, Memphis Underground, Jasil Brazz, Opalescence, Deep Pocket, and Peace Pieces.
After nearly 60 years of living in New York City, Herbie moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1989. He shares a wonderful life there with his wife Susan Janeal Arison, an actress and writer. Herbie’s recording output, enormous for two decades, withered away to virtually nothing and he disappeared from the position of public performer he had enjoyed since the late ’50s. His fortunes rebounded in 1991, however, when he founded Kokopelli Records, a small independent jazz label of the sort with which he had always wanted to record.
In 1997 during a week long celebration of his birthday he recorded live at the Blue Note in Manhattan the album Herbie Mann Celebration, highlighting his many musical styles and featuring some of the finest musicians of the last half century. He died in April 2003 at age 73.