Andrew L. Shea

Hank Mobley, the greatest sax player you never heard

The forgotten genius of Blue Note was a prince among players, but he died a pauper

Jazz may be an egalitarian, collaborative music, but jazz musicians honor their best with the laurels of hierarchy. Everyone knows the royal monikers of ‘Duke’ Ellington and ‘Count’ Basie, and most people know that Billie Holiday was ‘Lady Day’. But there’s also a whole aristocracy of hip name-drops: ‘The Baron’ (Charles Mingus), ‘Pres’ (Lester Young), ‘The Court Jester’ (Ornette Coleman), ‘The High Priest’ (Thelonious Monk). The list goes on, and on.

The mid-century saxophonist Hank Mobley (1930–86) was never ennobled in such fashion — unless you count Dexter Gordon’s hilarious handle for his friend, ‘The Hankenstein’. Nor has historical consensus enshrined Mobley as a leading musician of his era. Fellow tenor saxophonists like Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and select others are more popularly known and historically regarded. But among musicians, the two words used most to describe Mobley are ‘overlooked’ and ‘underrated’.

Perhaps it’s time, if not for revolution, to shake up the old order with the creation of a new musical dukedom or baronetcy. This week, Blue Note Records, the jazz label known in the ’50s and ’60s for its creative hospitality and its iconic album covers, releases a new CD box set of five albums with Mobley as leaderPeckin’ Time (1958), Roll Call (1960), Another Workout (1961; released 1985), No Room for Squares (1963), and Reach Out! (1968). These recordings, along with the 17 other albums Mobley recorded as a leader for Blue Note in the 17 years between 1955 and 1972, establish the saxophonist not only as a remarkably consistent performer, but also one whose career speaks to the power of creative integrity over conceptual novelty or popular appeal.

Hank Mobley was born in Depression-era rural Georgia but raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In 1946, aged 16, he picked up a saxophone and taught himself theory and harmony from books that his grandmother bought for him. By 19 he was playing in local R&B bands, and he soon began working with jazz greats such as Gordon and Lester Young, who visited nearby Newark for gigs.

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