When Harold Mabern was growing up in Memphis, he had no ambition to become a jazz pianist.
"I didn't choose it; it chose me," says Mabern, a self-taught musician. "I don't know anything about Chopin. I never studied piano. It's a God-given talent."
Many of the homes in his neighborhood had pianos, and one day he heard a young girl playing a song on the black keys called "I Stuck My Dolly in the Mud." Mabern learned it, and soon moved well beyond those black keys.
Those humble beginnings led to one of the greatest careers as a sideman in jazz history. Miles Davis, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan --- Mabern worked with all of them, and many more.
After playing on the Memphis scene as a teenager, Mabern left to attend a conservatory in Chicago, where his sister lived. "But when I got there the money was tight," Mabern says. "My sister said, 'You might as well stay here and see what you can do,' and that's the best thing that ever happened 'cause this music comes from the university of the street."
In Chicago, the music was happening 24/7 and the musicians were supportive of the young pianist. He credits Bill Lee, filmmaker Spike Lee's father, as a mentor.
"He was one of the greatest all-round geniuses ever," Mabern says. "I hung out with him and picked his brain, and that's how I was able to understand the music world. When I left Memphis, I knew maybe 10 songs; when I left Chicago, I knew 500."
Chicago players revered the Great American Songbook, so Mabern studied orchestrations like Nelson Riddle's arrangements on Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours." Mabern taught himself to read music and write arrangements.
Over the next several decades, Mabern played with a who's who of the jazz world: among them, saxophonists Hank Mobley, George Coleman and Jackie McLean; trumpeters Davis, Morgan, Blue Mitchell, and Freddie Hubbard; and guitarists Montgomery, George Benson and Pat Martino.
"No offense to Herbie Hancock, Chick and Keith, but I came up with the greatest musicians of all time," Mabern says.
He also took part in some of the greatest jazz recording sessions in history. Even at the time, he knew it. "I felt it was history," Mabern says. "There was so much camaraderie among the musicians even though, unfortunately, some of them were strung out on drugs. But it didn't affect their musicianship."
One of his favorite albums from that time is Lee Morgan's "The Gigolo," because it's the only documentation of Mabern playing with Wayne Shorter.
"Lee Morgan was so supportive of me," says Mabern. "He treated me like a brother. Lee was a true trumpet genius. That's why Miles loved him. They were the most charismatic trumpet players --- hip without trying to be hip."
Mabern made albums as a leader in the late 1960's and early 1970's, but for long periods of time he was strictly a sideman. "I'm not interested in being a leader," Mabern says. "I like to be a sideman and shine through from the background."
But in recent years, Mabern has recorded as a leader, and he has expanded the songbook to include tunes like Norah Jones's "Don't Know Why" and Steely Dan's "Do It Again."
"I always like to have something on the record for the people," Mabern says. "A lot of guys, especially the young piano players, they go out with these charts that they can't figure out, the folks can't figure out. You've got to entertain like Cannonball did: 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.' "