The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz




Herbie Mann is unarguably the most famous jazz flautist of all time. He is also said to be the first jazz musician to specialize in this instrument although it can be argued that the distinction should go to Sam Most. It can also be argued that Herbie Mann's popularity is not really based on his jazz work or even his technical expertise on the flute but on Mann's talented tendency to pick commercial trends and follow them. And lastly it can be argued that Mann's singular gift is not based on him being the best flautist in pop music or jazz but the one most able to greet listeners at the lowest denominator.

The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz is part of a "series of jazz biographies by Cary Ginell published by Hal Leonard Books". It is on the short side at under 200 pages and therefore tends to cause any musical analysis by Grinell tio be a bit thin. That is unfortunate because the author does seem to have a nice grasp of the music and the musician's role in developing our understanding of jazz. However he is primarily regulated to a straightforward description of Mann's history and discography. He does seem to lightly touch upon the issues I mentioned in the first paragraph. He is quite aware of Mann's lean toward commercialism. He quotes Sam Most talking about Herbie Mann as saying,

"One time I told Herbie, "Wow, I wish I could be as successful as you. "I was working in L.A. at that time. And Herbie said "One of us has to be the artist and one of us has to be the business."

..but he is also aware that Mann did have a innovative style in that he searched for music that was not only appealing to the public but was something new to be heard. Mann was one of the first musicians to experiment seriously with Brazilian and third world musics in jazz and if his experiments seem a little tame to today's standard, he did open the world to a better understanding of third world music.

One of the things I thought was interesting is that Mann did not start out as a Flautist. He wanted to be a tenor saxophonist. Part of his reason for picking up the flute seem to be that as a saxophonist he was out manned...

When I went into the Army, I wanted to be Lester Young. That's all I thought of. When I got out, I found Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Brew Moore and Allen Eager had beaten me to it."

Mann's decision to specialize in the flute was an important move for jazz. He started as a pure jazz player but became intrigued with the use of the flute in Latin orchestras and eventually found his own vote mixing jazz with Latin, Brazilian, and African rhythms. But as Ginell notes...

As with everything Herbie did, there was a business angle to accompany the creative decision. At the end of his contract with Verve, he put these ideas to work in a project that would change his life as well as the direction of jazz.

Mann liked to say he wanted to be like Benny Goodman, a distinct musician and popularizer of his instrument (in Goodman's case, the clarinet). I think Mann accomplished that with the caveat that Goodman remained a jazz musician while Mann swerved into easy-listening. I say with only a bit of sarcasm that Herbie Mann is one of the reasons we hear so many flute solos in elevators.

The author does a good job following Mann's changes of direction and writes a nice biography, giving the title Evolution of Mann a very appropriate turn. Yet aside from a few pages at the beginning about the limited use of the flute in American Music before the 50s, he doesn't say that much about the evolution of the flute after that. Yes, Herbie Mann may of been the most popular but he wasn't necessarily the best or the most innovative. To my ears, Sam Most is a much more accomplished flautist and the first to play the flute regularly as a jazz musician. While Herbie Mann was busy become the Kenny G of the 60s and 70s, Hubert Laws took the mantle of most popular jazz flautist and while still concerned with a cross-over style, spoke more to the modern jazz of the time. But while this was all going on, other seminal musicians less beholden to commercial interest such as Julius Hemphill, Eric Dolphy, and Yusef Lateef were stretching the boundaries of jazz and the flute. In fact, on a list of 100 innovative flautists, Mann was listed second to Eric Dolphy.

So Ginell's biography may be good for a basic history of Herbie Mann and even a must read for the avid Mann Fan, it doesn't really help us learn much about jazz and the role of the flute. For this reason, it becomes a disappointing read despite the author's distinct to-the-point style which I find refreshing. It still remains to see if Herbie Mann takes a front row seat in jazz history. The recent environment seems to be against him. But I do appreciate Grinell's biography for reminding us that Herbie Mann did play a brief role in the development of jazz even if Mann himself decided to turn against that role later in his life.