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What Is and What Could Be: Hank Mobley
When my coworker Robert heard that I was getting into jazz, he brought a CD into work for me. “You need this,” he said smiling. He slid the jewel case across the dusty top of my computer terminal. It was Hank Mobley’s Soul Station

      Set against a black background, beneath three rows of simple text, Mobley’s face and shoulders hovered in the center of the album cover, a statuary bust awash in aquamarine. “He looks like he’s high out of his mind,” Robert said. It was true. Head back, eyes hidden beneath heavy lids, the young tenor wore a euphoric smirk whose mix of bliss and self-assurance seemed to dare you to ask what he was so ecstatic about. But what if he wasn’t high, just ecstatic? Couldn’t this be a smile of satisfaction and excitement, the pure childlike reverie musicians feel when playing stirring music in a well-equipped studio? Although I didn’t know it then, Mobley had had drug problems off and on—many jazz players had—but at the time of this recording, he was as clear as his polished horn. You can hear it in the music. This album is his masterpiece. That’s why it’s fitting that he holds up his saxophone in triumph on the cover. 


In 1979, at age forty-nine, Mobley told journalist John Litweiler, “It’s hard for me to think of what could be and what should have been. I lived with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk; I walked with them up and down the street. I did not know what it meant when I listened to them cry—until it happened to me.” 

      The first time I read these sentences, they filled me with gloom. The thought of one of my favorite tenors suffering enough to cry left me grieving into the night. It also raised the question: What happened to Mobley? 

      What “should have been”—should have. Should. “Should” is the language of outcomes. The word suggests a blueprint of the mechanics behind fate, about our conceptions of fairness, providence, and stakes, as well as a person’s expectations, not just what we’re entitled to, but how much we believe in the American value of “hard work + time = rewards & improvement.” In its grandest application, “should” can suggest the inner workings of cosmic justice, what the universe owes you—reward for effort, reward for morality, Karmic recompense. Here, the word delivers news of destiny undelivered. What Mobley thought should have happened did not. Instead, he got something else, something that seems to have challenged his worldview and suffused it with some amount of regret. 

      Mobley’s words remind me of the song “It Could Happen to You.” Like many bebop and hard-bop standards, this one debuted as a vocal number in a film, the 1944 musical And the Angels Sing, but numerous musicians in Mobley’s day played instrumental versions of it. 

      “Hide your heart from sight, lock your dreams at night,” go the lyrics. “It could happen to you. Don’t count stars or you might stumble. Someone drops a sigh and down you tumble.” 

      Thanks to biographies and Hollywood archetypes, we know the typical tragedies of the working musician: creative freedom without financial stability; cult status without widespread recognition; health problems but no health insurance. Thanks to jazz lore, we know the others’ particular tragedies: Charlie Parker’s self-destructive genius; Bud Powell’s groundbreaking vision interrupted by mental illness; Monk’s imagination and compositions, beloved by insiders but unable to generate the money or fame his brilliance deserved. Mobley never enjoyed their distinction or profile, yet what happened to him was the same as the others: bad luck and trouble, the currency of the blues, and like Charlie Parker taught him, “Baby, you’d better learn those blues; can’t play enough of the blues.” 


The song “Remember” on Soul Station starts with some of the most joyous jazz on record, forty-five seconds of pure, swinging elation. 

      Out front, Mobley’s sax plays the theme: very spare, very simple. Pianist Wynton Kelly laces the theme with bright, jubilant chords tapped with the weight of angel food cake. Behind them, drummer Art Blakey’s swift beat moves the intro along until he marks the end with one of his thunderous press rolls, and kicks off Mobley’s two-minute solo with a brassy cymbal crash. 

      “Remember” is a cover of a 1925 Irving Berlin with melancholy lyrics. 
Remember we found a lonely spot,
And after I learned to care a lot,
You promised that you’d forget me not,
But you forgot
To remember. 
     Yet on Soul Station, stripped of lyrics, the song loses its mournful theme and becomes something so joyful, it sounds the way falling in love feels. The band transforms a eulogy to lost love into an anthem of elation, infusing it with a sense of optimism and excitement which, in the soundtrack to an unwritten film in my mind, seems to signal the arrival of new beginnings, a farewell to hardship and hello to something epic. The hippity-hop of Kelly’s piano, Mobley’s round, lush tone, and Blakey’s buoyant shuffle—if you want a glimpse into a happy soul, into how I feel on my best days, those forty-five seconds of music are it. 

      I’ve listened to “Remember” so many times that when I sing along with Mobley’s solo, I know nearly every note he plays. I know when Blakey intensifies the beat, when he changes the rhythm, and I know all his fills. I can sing Kelly’s ebullient solo, and I know the spots where you can hear Kelly humming to himself—something he often did—as well as the spots where he heightens the mood by hitting the keys harder. This isn’t a boast about my sophisticated ear. It’s a tribute to how melodic and infectious the music is. So melodic, so cleanly articulated and composed, that even a guy like me who plays one instrument poorly can remember it.
Remember the night
The night you said, “I love you.”
Remember you vowed
By all the stars above you.
     I remember walking up Manhattan’s Park Avenue in the winter of 2007, listening to this song. The sun had nearly set. A steely blue encased the street, the towering buildings and expansive pavement all bearing the same cool color as the inside of your eyelids at dawn. Mobley’s “Remember” played in my earphones, and it washed me with a feeling of confidence and calm. I shuffled through the frigid air and stopped at the curb on 39th. Cars raced past. I waited for a gap. When I looked down at my cheap cotton shoes, the toes were wet and perched on the worn cement edge, and instead of bemoaning how cold and tired and wet I felt, I thought, “I feel good.” I was aware of it at that moment, and I knew that the song was the reason. 

      I only lived in New York for one year, but “Remember,” like all of Soul Station, was one of the only energizing forces during that period of fatigue. More than all the coffee and tea I drank to combat sleep deprivation, more than the endless amounts of nicotine I consumed to feel better about stress and lack of money, cold weather, exhaustion, and wet shoes, that album powered me through. It so effectively cushioned the blows my life dealt that, when I think about that year now, I hear this song and mostly remember the good things that happened, the overall tone of it, which is the tone this song set. 

      Part of the charm of “Remember” is its pace. The beat is perfectly spaced so that when your legs move in sync with it, it sets you sashaying up the street. When Blakey struts, you strut. When Kelly swings, you swing. It’s the ideal song for walking, because the song’s confidence and swagger infuse the listener, and as you move to keep pace, you temporarily inhabit its joyous disposition. 

      As writer Bob Blumenthal says in the remastered Soul Station liner notes, “All six [songs] are delivered with a natural ease that may create a misleading impression of easy music—what could sound easier, for instance, than the opening choruses of ‘Remember?’—yet that is part of the brilliance behind the album. If everybody could toss off music this satisfying, then Soul Station would have far more company at the pinnacle of recorded jazz.”
Into my dreams you wandered it seems, and then there came a day
You loved me too, my dreams had come true, and all the world was May.
But soon the May-time turned to December.
You had forgotten, do you remember?

     It takes talents like Kelly, Blakey, and Mobley to perform music this satisfying, but how did they make such a sad song so uplifting? 


“Where do you think everybody got the blues from?” Mobley told DownBeat magazine in 1973. “Did you ever hear “Just Friends” and tap your foot to it? Soul Station is the same thing, just like walking down the highway, it sounds like somebody’s saying, ‘Oh, man, I’m tired of this town, got to get away from this.” 

      Born in Georgia in 1930, Mobley started playing sax at age sixteen after his family moved to New Jersey. A few relatives played instruments. He learned piano as a kid, but alto captured his attention. When he spotted one at a local store, he saved up money by working at a bowling alley. “When I finally got up enough money for my horn, the dealer went on a month’s vacation,” Mobley said. “In the meantime, I got a music book, and when he got back, I knew the whole instrument; all I had to do was put it in my mouth and play. I’ll tell you, when I was about eight they wanted me to play the piano, but I wanted to play cops and robbers. But when I got serious the music started coming easy.” 

      “I was in woodshop, carpentry, auto mechanics; then I took machine shop for a year. I was a nervous wreck studying to be a machinist. We had a little music thing in school, and I played this Lester Young solo, ‘One O’Clock Jump,’ note for note. The shop teacher used to play trumpet, and he said, ‘There’s no room out there for a black machinist. The way you play saxophone, why don’t you study that?’ That’s the way I did. I quit shop that same year, I just put on my hip clothes and went chasing women and going to rock and roll things …” 

      His uncle played seven instruments, including trumpet, and even briefly led his own band. “My uncle told me a lot of things,” Mobley said, “and he always used to say, ‘Listen to Lester Young.’ When I was about eighteen he told me: ‘If you’re playing with somebody who plays loud, you play soft. If somebody plays fast, you play slow. If you try to play the same thing they’re playing you’re in trouble.’ Contrast. If you play next to Johnny Griffin or Coltrane, that’s hard work. You have to out-psych them. They’d say, ‘Let’s play “Cherokee,”’ I’d go, ‘Naw, naw—ah, how about a little “Bye-Bye Blackbird”?’ I put my heavy form on them, then I can double up and do everything I want to do.” 

      This contrast served him well. In an era of speeding solos, he became a master of midtempo, but only after years of playing professionally. First, he switched instruments. “To the best of my knowledge,” he said, “Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, myself, Jimmy Heath, John Coltrane—we called ourselves the ‘Five Brothers,’ you know, the five black brothers—we all started playing alto, but Charlie Parker was such a monster that we all gave up and switched to tenor. I wasn’t creating anything new, I was just part of a clique. When we all listened to Fats Navarro and Bud Powell, when we were twenty, twenty-one, all of us were learning together. We weren’t trying to surpass Parker or the heavyweights. But as you get older you start finding different directions. At the time it was like going to college. It was just doing our thing, playing different changes, experimenting …” 

      Based solely on Mobley’s reputation, trumpeter Clifford Brown recommended him for a job with Newark-based R&B pianist Paul Gayten, in 1949. Brown had never even heard Mobley play. After two years with Gayten, Mobley left to join the house band at a Newark club, alongside pianist Walter Davis, Jr. Every week, some of jazz’s biggest names came from New York to perform, and Mobley backed them: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Bud Powell. After one weekend show at the club in 1951, drummer Max Roach hired him and Walter Davis. “I was just twenty-one,” said Mobley. “We opened in a place on 125th Street in Harlem; Charlie Parker had just been there before me, and here I come. I’m scared to death—here’s Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Kenny Dorham, Gerry Mulligan, just about all the young musicians came by there.” That gig launched his career. 

      Mobley and Davis recorded with Roach in early 1953 on one of the drummer’s first dates as a leader. He recorded on other Roach albums and played with others whose names are now legendary: Tadd Dameron, Milt Jackson, J. J. Johnson. He did two weeks with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1953 when their clarinetist and tenor Jimmy Hamilton stepped out to get some dental work. He spent the next year playing and recording with Dizzy Gillespie and then joined drummer Art Blakey and pianist Horace Silver in a band that became one of jazz’s most influential, one of the architects of hard bop, the Jazz Messengers. Considered a classic, their debut album, Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, was one of the earliest hard-bop sessions, and it announced the tone for the post-bop era, as well as for Art Blakey’s career, since he carried the Jazz Messengers name for the next thirty-five years of his life. 

      The Messengers started out as a collective of friends pooling their resources and playing what they liked. “Horace had the quartet at Minton’s,” Mobley said, “then on weekends Art Blakey and Kenny Dorham would come in to jam, ’cause they were right around the corner. Out of that we started feeling something, and we said, ‘Let’s do our thing; we all got something going name-wise; if anyone gets a job let’s use all of us.’ I think [drummer] Arthur Edgehill was working with somebody else, too, but Blakey was right there. Horace’d get a job, or Art, or Kenny, or I’d get a job; we’d split the money equally.” 

      Charlie Parker didn’t give formal lessons to young players or mentor them; he threw them bits of advice, and he advised the young Mobley to learn the blues. Besides being a genre of music and specific chord progressions, “the blues” is also code for trouble, for suffering, sadness, and misfortune. “Parker played the modern blues,” Mobley said, “what he’s saying is that so much of modern jazz, structures, harmonic progressions, they’re all based on the blues.” He also embodied it. Brilliant, charming, inventive, self-destructive: In bop, Parker helped create a new type of music, and before he died at age thirty-four from drug and alcohol abuse, his music and lifestyle led countless players to the horn and the needle. 

      Between the year of Parker’s death and 1958, Mobley recorded nine albums as a leader for Blue Note Records, four for other labels, and he played as a sideman on numerous others. Those Blue Note sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio were salad days. “They’d buy the whiskey and brandy Saturday night and the food on Sunday—they’d set out salami, liverwurst, bologna, rye bread, the whole bit,” said Mobley. “Only Blue Note did it; the others [Prestige and Savoy] were a little stiff.” Blue Note was equally generous with rehearsals. Because they wanted solid albums, they paid for musicians’ practice. “If we had a date Saturday, I’d rehearse the band Tuesday and Thursday in a New York studio …” 

      During his career, Mobley recorded as a leader almost exclusively for Blue Note, a label run by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two German immigrants whose jazz fanaticism and impeccable taste spoke to their players’ abilities. Lion and Wolff were meticulous. They had strong opinions about what did and didn’t sound good, and they mostly recorded what they liked rather than what they thought would sell. “We’d be making a tape, and sometimes my horn might squeak, and Frank Wolff would say, ‘Hank Mobley! You squeaked! You squeaked!’—and the whole band would crack up, we couldn’t get back to play the tune. And old Alfred Lion would be walking around, (snap) ‘Mmm!’ (snap) ‘Ooh!’ (snap)—‘Now vait a minute, it don’t sving, it don’t sving!’ So we’d stop and laugh, then come back and slow it down just a bit. Then he’d say, (snap) (snap) ‘Fine, fine, dot really svings, ja!’” 

      By the midfifties, Mobley had grown as a composer since his Newark days, with some of his strongest early material appearing on Hank Mobley QuartetHank Mobley Quintet, and Hank Mobley and His All-Stars. By the time he released Peckin’ Time in 1958, a deepening heroin dependence led to his arrest, though, and the prison sentence kept him out of music for most of the year. When he returned in 1959, he briefly rejoined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to reestablish his bearings, and he got right back to recording. Soul Station was his comeback. As Blumenthal observes, drug problems “interrupted his performing career, yet, as the recorded evidence proves, they had not impeded his progress.” He followed the album with a string of powerful records the following year, Roll CallWorkout, and Another Workout, creating a sequence that inarguably composes the best of his oeuvre. 

      In 1961, Miles Davis punctuated Mobley’s winning streak with what seemed the opportunity of a lifetime: to play in his quintet. Davis led one of jazz’s most popular outfits. He paid his musicians well. They had frequent bookings and lots of press. For a brief time, Davis even paid a retainer to make sure his musicians were available when he needed them. “That was the best job you could have,” said Davis’ drummer Jimmy Cobb, “about as high as you could get playing jazz music, so I was feeling pretty good about it.” Davis’ visibility also launched John Coltrane’s, Red Garland’s and Cannonball Adderley’s solo careers. When Coltrane left to focus on his own songwriting and recording, the trumpeter went searching for the right replacement. He wanted Sonny Rollins, but Rollins had taken a sabbatical. He wanted Jimmy Heath, but parole limited the distance Heath could travel to perform. He hired Mobley. After less than a year together, the association dissolved. 

      “[P]laying with Hank just wasn’t fun for me,” Davis said in his autobiography, “he didn’t stimulate my imagination.” The problem was stylistic. Mobley’s style was too laid back, too legato and behind the beat. Davis could also be cruel. He often hassled his new musicians by comparing them with the musicians whose slots they’d filled. He did this to Cobb, did it to Red Garland, and he did it to Mobley. During one concert, while Mobley soloed, Miles stood within earshot and said, “Any time Sonny Rollins shows up with his horn, he’s got the job.” The tenor eventually quit. “But when I left Miles [in 1961],” he said, “I was so tired of music, the whole world, man, I just went back to drugs.” 

      He played a few sessions, some his own like the darkly melodic No Room for Squares, some for others like organist Freddie Roach. In 1964, he got arrested for narcotics again and imprisoned. He wrote the songs for the octet that became Slice of the Top and had to give pianist Duke Pearson the sheet music to arrange while he served prison time. Like before, Mobley didn’t let his problems slow him down. During the second half of the 1960s, he managed to record an album or more for Blue Note every year: Far Away LandsHigh VoltageThird SeasonThe Flip. These albums are dense and listenable, featuring some catchy, complex, standout tunes, but they aren’t as potent as Soul Station or Workout. He lived in Chicago for a while and led a band with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and drummer Wilbur Campbell. He married Arlene Lisser, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois, and a fan. Once he and Lisser split, he left Chicago. Rather than enter an alcohol treatment unit, he moved, living briefly in East Orange, New Jersey; then in Philadelphia, where his health deteriorated. 

      When Slice of the Top finally came out in 1979, thirteen years after it was recorded, Mobley was forty-nine and in bad shape. As the text on the record sleeve says, he had two lung operations in the early seventies, which kept him from performing or recording. A problem with a birth certificate stopped him from participating in a European festival. And he had two of his saxophones stolen. His remaining sax leaked, so the sound was off, and he didn’t have the money to buy a replacement. Not that it mattered. “The doctor told me not to play it, or I might blow one of my lungs out,” he said. By 1975, he was effectively retired, a fate undeserved for a musician of his achievement and ability. 

      As he said on the record sleeve, “It’s hard for me to think of what could be and what should have been. I lived with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk; I walked with them up and down the street. I did not know what it meant when I listened to them cry—until it happened to me.” Maybe I’m misreading it or taking it out of context, but when I read those words, I hear a person looking back not just on his career, but on his life. Did I waste it? Where did it get me? After so many fruitful decades, here he was on life’s leeward slope, taking stock of his vanished youth. 

      You can feel the reflection and fear in his voice, the question of meaning. Look at all the things I did, he seems to be saying, all the places I went and people I knew. All the practice. All the time spent composing, playing gigs, losing sleep to write and rehearse and record twenty-five albums for Blue Note, all the hustling. Playing alongside Parker and Monk, helping start the Jazz Messengers, playing with Max Roach before he formed his famous band, filling in for Coltrane in Miles’s quintet—he’d been in nearly all the right places at the right time, everywhere any tenor would want to be. Shouldn’t it have amounted to more? But Mobley’s pianist on Soul Station, Wynton Kelly, died of a seizure in Canada at age thirty-nine, broke. Mobley’s old Jazz Messengers bassist Doug Watkins died at age twenty-eight in a car accident, the same tragic end that the clean-living, twenty-five-year-old trumpeter Clifford Brown met, the person who got Mobley his first job. And his trumpeter friend and collaborator Lee Morgan? A jealous lover shot him on stage at a show when he was thirty-three. In music and life, there is no justice. Mobley’s final album offers evidence of this. 

      Blue Note’s cofounder Francis Wolff died in 1971, and the company, like jazz, changed. The following year, Mobley teamed up with pianist Cedar Walton and recorded Breakthrough! for a small label named Muse. It was the first album he’d done as a leader for another company since 1955, and it looks the part. An oversized image of a cinder block floats on the cover, a grainy gray CGI set against the sort of blown-out, artificially blue sky that you find in allergy medicine commercials. There’s no expressive profile of the artist. No careful font or lush coloration. Everything about the cover suggests an afterthought, as if the label saw Mobley as some hobbyist from the burbs who’d just learned the horn, and treated this not as another in a sequence of solid sessions, but as a throwaway. In hindsight, this album stands as a capstone to one of jazz’s great careers. Based on the cover, it resembles a vanity project. 

      Why the title, Breakthrough!? Break through to what, death? The other side? Judging from the album’s low production values, the title could not have been suggesting that Mobley was finally going to break through the barrier of popular appreciation and earn him the recognition he deserved. Although Mobley hadn’t “broken through” to fame, he had already made his name and left his mark, had broken and rebroken if measured by his triumphs over adversity. The title reads like an ignorant assessment of his career, patronizing even, in the same way that his last Blue Note album, Thinking of Home, inadvertently reads like cruel commentary on his physical frailty, a way to point out the low sad station of his soul in old age, a curtain call—which is another one of his album titles—as if God Himself were calling him home. Fortunately, the music on Breakthrough! isn’t as awful as the presentation. As Scott Yanow at AllMusic says, “Hank … is in brilliant form, showing how much he had grown since his earlier days.” His solo on “Summertime” is particularly emotive. After it, he recorded nothing more. 

      Mobley somehow managed to work briefly with pianist Duke Jordan in Philadelphia in 1986, then died of pneumonia in May of that year. He spent the last years of his life so far off the radar that even the attentive New York Times failed to notice his passing and issue an obituary. 

      In his heyday, musicians and listeners appreciated Mobley for his songwriting and melodic playing, yet he was still overshadowed by more assertive or inventive players. Noted critic Leonard Feather inadvertently gave Mobley a demeaning tag that stayed with him his whole life, when he called him “middleweight champion of the tenor saxophone.” Feather meant to describe Mobley’s tone as lying somewhere between cool jazz tenors like Stan Getz and more bold players such as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Instead, the metaphor implied a middling quality, a style unexceptional and middle-of-the-road, which seems to have cast Mobley into his lifelong station as an “underrated” tenor. Even as an underdog, he earned a cult following. 

      In Blue Note Records: The Biography, author Richard Cook says, “Mobley has always been a favorite among Blue Note collectors—perhaps the musician in such circles. Though a journeyman rather than any kind of groundbreaking voice, he was more influential than jazz historians have often allowed. Many British musicians of the fifties and sixties would seek out his elusive records. If a figure such as Sonny Rollins was too overpowering a voice to be useful as an influence, the more diplomatic Mobley could offer more practical material to work with.” 

      It’s tempting to say he “should have been” more famous, but to use the phrase is to face the fact that the last years of Mobley’s life conflict with the jubilance and celebratory swagger of Soul Station. As a fan who listens to his music almost weekly, his words continue to haunt me, though not in the way they did initially. 

      He says he found it just as hard to think of “what should have been” as “what could be.” Could be—that’s not the language of loss. It’s the language of hope. A person gazing into the future and imagining its potential is someone who thinks they’ll be around in the future, someone with at least some momentary optimism. By the end of his career, he’d penned over eighty songs. Maybe, at age forty-nine, he was still imagining what new songs he could write, where his music could take him, what sort of tenor he still could be. Granted, when he said “what could be” was “hard to think about,” he might have meant that pessimistically: that when he thought about the future, he thought about limitations, not about what he could do so much as what he could no longer do, what could not be. Then again, when he said “hard,” he might have meant “challenging” rather than “painful,” implying that it stretched his imagination to think about, rather than pained him. When he looked into his future, what did he see? We’ll never know. His words will always carry a dual meaning, just as his posture does on Soul Station.

      Looking at the album cover now, the way he raises his sax still seems triumphant. The truth is, it’s impossible to tell. Was he raising it when Francis Wolff snapped the photo, or was he lowering it? The horn rests on the back of Mobley’s shoulder, frozen between ascent and descent, action and rest, ambition and accomplishment. Behind that euphoric smirk, he could be thinking, Man, this session is poppin’! Let’s keep it going; or he could be thinking, Alright, guys, let’s call it a day and head home. The direction of movement will forever be unclear, though it’s tempting to assign meaning when you consider the direction his life took after the session. Then again, maybe he wasn’t raising or lowering his saxophone at all. Maybe it’s just relaxing on his shoulder, going neither up nor down, forever brassy and clear, and forever at rest.

Aaron Gilbreath (@AaronGilbreath) has written essays, some about jazz, for the New York Times, Tin House, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, AGNI, Threepenny Review, Black Warrior Review, Brick, and Hotel Amerika; and articles for Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Yeti. Future Tense Publishing put out his chapbook, A Secondary Landscape and Thought Catalog republished his essay “The Stoned Age” as an e-book.