Herbie Mann was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 and began playing clarinet when he was nine after being taken to a Benny Goodman concert, but was soon also playing flute and tenor sax; Lester Young became his hero. After serving in the Army, he joined the Mat Mathews’ Quintet in 1953 for a year before leading his own band in Los Angeles. Mann mostly played tenor saxophone and unusually bass clarinet, in a bop setting for the next four years, with the likes of Sam Most, Joe Puma, Jimmy Gannon, Lee Kleinman, Phil Woods, Bobby Jaspar, Charlie Rouse and Buddy Collette.
The first recording that got him noticed was Flute Soufflé (1957) for Prestige recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey. In August 1957 he recorded in Los Angeles for Verve and the sessions produced The Magic Flute of Herbie Mann. The next year, Mann brought together an Afro-Jazz Sextet for which he added percussion and vibes to accompany his flute. They recorded Flautista, and toured 15 countries in Africa (1960), and Brazil (1961) under the auspices of the US Department of State. His live appearances demonstrated his phenomenal abilities and in 1962 he had a hit with ‘Comin’ Home Baby’ from his live recording, Herbie Mann at the Village Gate; this was the first of eleven records to make the Billboard charts, almost unheard of for a jazz musician.
Mann was an extraordinarily successful jazz flutist, exploring Brazilian bossa nova and introducing music from other cultures, as well as adding pop and rock tunes to his albums. His bands featured emerging musicians: the likes of Chick Corea, Attila Zoller, Willie Bobo and Roy Ayers. In 1969, a certain young guitarist called Larry Coryell appeared on Memphis Underground, while Sonny Sharrock performed in the band at the 1972 Newport Festival.
Mann continued to experiment with musical genres throughout his career, often stepping out beyond jazz fusion, and sometimes into commercial avenues. However, because of his diversity, it can be reasonably claimed that he was a pioneer in World Music.
After a long and illustrious recording career – he dominated the Down Beat readers’ poll from 1957-70 – even though his popularity was not echoed by the critics, Mann passed away in July, 2003, following an extended battle with prostate cancer.