A good many years ago when I was visiting Toronto, I made my way in the evening to the Café des Copains, a well-known jazz club that specialized in presenting pianists. On the bill that night was Junior Mance, and quite frankly I was surprised to learn that he was playing solo. At the time I knew him only as a sideman from various combo recordings, and could not very well imagine what he would do all alone. Modern jazz pianists often have a very different approach to music when left to their own devices, as they have to use their left hand for more than occasional comping, so I was curious to learn how Mance would do. Needless to say, I had no reason to worry, as we were treated to a rollicking, swinging, and sophisticated set of music in which all the material was tinged by the heat of the blues.
Mance comes from Evanston, next to the blues-infused city of Chicago. His father provided him with a solid musical education, and right after leaving high school in 1947 the young Mance went on the road with the great tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons. His early accomplishments can be tracked on recordings that begin that very year when he took part in sessions led by Ammons and Leo Parker. After working with Ammons, Mance spent two years on the road with the veteran saxophonist Lester Young, documented once again by some fine recorded appearances. He then had to go into the army, an experience that was to prove most useful, as he made contact with a number of musicians while in the service, including Cannonball Adderley, who was still unknown at the time. After his discharge he returned to Chicago and gained more experience as the house pianist in one of the premier jazz clubs in the city. He did not stay long, however, for he soon went back on the road, working for singer Dinah Washington and for the new star of the day — his army buddy Cannonball.
By 1961 he had a great resume, including stints with Dizzy Gillespie and two albums under his own name, and it was time to go out on his own. Since that time he has led his own trios and has worked in duo settings with bass players. He has also established working partnerships with other musicians, among them baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, with whom he has recorded a very nice album of Thelonious Monk tunes.
Over the last four decades, Junior Mance has worked on his own, playing, recording, and teaching, while sometimes working for other leaders. His repertoire is quite varied, but he is best known as a blues player, somewhat like his occasional piano companion Ray Bryant. Both of them have found ways to combine modern harmonies with the emotional inflections of the blues and thus have created styles that cannot be easily pigeonholed.
On February 11 and 12, Mance joins our own master of the blues, Mark Braun (Mr. B), for Mr. B's annual birthday bash at the Kerrytown Concert House.