The most popular jazz flutist of the 1960s and ’70s, Herbie Mann, died Wednesday in New Mexico after a long battle with prostate cancer. He was 73.
Mann was diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in 1997, and he formed a nonprofit foundation, Herbie Mann’s Prostate Cancer Awareness Music Foundation, funded by his performances and recordings.
A bebop musician in the early 1950s after his discharge from the Army, the New Yorker established himself as an adventurous player during the decade by bringing the bass clarinet to the genre and recording for the Savoy label an album of solo flute in 1957. His 1961 album “Herbie Mann at the Village Gate” was one of the most popular jazz albums of its time, reaching No. 30 on the pop chart.
He found his greatest success, however, blending other styles with jazz. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, he worked with Latin musicians such as the bandleader Machito, with whom Dizzy Gillespie had created early Afro-Cuban jazz, and later on added Brazilian bossa nova musicians to his band. “Do the Bossa Nova With Herbie Mann” and “Herbie Mann/Joao Gilberto/Antonio Carlos Jobim,” on which Jobim made his singing debut, were among the early jazz-Brazil crossover efforts.
Most of his recordings were made for Atlantic, Verve and Prestige.
Mann’s music went farther afield throughout the 1960s and early ’70s as he recorded pop hits (“The Beat Goes On,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), recorded in two R&B hotbeds (Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Ala.) and recorded with rock guitarists such as Duane Allman and Mick Taylor. In the late ’60s he would work with Middle Eastern styles and rhythms and in the ’70s, reggae and disco; since 1998, Mann and his band Sona Terra had incorporated Eastern European styles.
In the disco era, he had a hit with “High Jack.”
Born in Brooklyn as Herbert Jay Solomon, he learned clarinet, saxophone and flute and started performing at 15 at resorts in the Catskill Mountains. He got his first post-Army gig when Dutch accordionist Mat Matthews told him he was looking for a jazz flute player for the first album by the then-unknown Carmen McRae.
Like many of his fellow jazz band leaders, Mann hired many young musicians who would later go on to lead bands of their own or be important sidemen. In fact, the list of conga players Mann hired early in their careers now reads like a who’s who on the instrument: Candido, Ray Barretto, Olatunji, Potato Valdes and Willie Bobo.
In the last 20 years, Mann often revisited his Brazil work, and in l992 he formed his own label, Kokopelli Music. To mark his 65th birthday in 1995, the Lightyear label issued two albums recorded during a weeklong celebration that featured many of his musical partners, including David “Fathead” Newman, Dave Valentin, Ron Carter, Billy Taylor, Tito Puente, Randy Brecker and Claudio Roditi. His last performance was May 3 at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He is survived by his wife, Susan Janeal Arison; two sons and two daughters; his mother; and a sister.