Night Lights Classic Jazz

The Memphis Mafia: Mabern, Strozier, Coleman And Little

Memphis is renowned for its remarkable contributions to 20th-century popular music. But the city also has an outstanding jazz legacy--"The Memphis Mafia."

Play Episode (Real Audio)
  • George Coleman

    Image 1 of 6

    Photo: Mark Sheldon

    Tenor saxophonist George Coleman.

  • Booker Little 4

    Image 2 of 6

    Photo: Album cover art.

    One of trumpeter Booker Little's earliest recordings.

  • Frank Strozier

    Image 3 of 6

    Photo: Album cover art.

    Saxophonist Frank Strozier.

  • Harold Mabern 1960s

    Image 4 of 6

    Photo: Album cover art

    Pianist Harold Mabern has recorded or performed often with fellow Memphis native George Coleman.

  • Miles Davis boxing

    Image 5 of 6

    Photo: MilesDavisonline

    Coleman, Mabern, and Frank Strozier all played with trumpeter Miles Davis' group for a brief period in 1963; Coleman would stay on and record with Davis as well.

  • Memphis 1950s

    Image 6 of 6

    Memphis in the mid-20th century.

Memphis, Tennessee is renowned throughout the world for its remarkable contributions to 20th-century popular music. It’s a place where the Sun Records and Stax/Volt labels played significant roles in shaping the respective sounds of rock ‘n roll and soul music; it’s where many musicians found their artistic voices, including

Though it’s known for its pop and blues, Memphis also has a rich jazz legacy. In fact, one group of musicians that emerged from the city in the late 1950s gained such notice among their colleagues in the wider world that they were eventually dubbed ‘the Memphis Mafia,’ a jocular jazz appropriation of the nickname for Elvis Presley’s rather notorious entourage). They were

Coleman’s Coming-Of-Age

George Coleman, who paid some of his musical dues playing with B.B. King in the 1950s, told Neil Tesser decades later,

The environment was very fertile. I grew up in the R and B era and basically because of geography, being from the south, that was the first music I became involved with. But I was also hearing a lot of bebop, and along with that, I picked up a lot of harmony from the music teachers in Memphis, most of whom were piano players.

Like Little, Strozier and Mabern, Coleman attended Manassas High School in Memphis. All four musicians eventually migrated to Chicago, where they became a part of the city’s thriving jam-session scene and formed associations with Walter Perkins’ MJT + 3 and drummer Max Roach’s group. They would work and record together in various configurations over the next several years, although Little’s career was tragically cut short when he died in 1961 at the age of 23.

The Davis Connection

Several of these artists also passed through the orbit of trumpeter Miles Davis. At the outset of 1963, Davis was in a transitional phase, trying to assemble a new group. In his autobiography, he wrote,

Before I left New York I had had tryouts for the band and that’s where I got all those Memphis musicians – Coleman, Strozier, and Mabern. (They had gone to school with the great young trumpet player Booker Little…and the pianist Phineas Newborn. I wonder what they were doing down there when all them guys came through that one school?)

Davis soon let Strozier and Mabern go, though he spoke of them respectfully afterwards; Coleman, however, stayed with the band and became an integral part of Davis’ 1963-64 sound. He also appeared on Herbie Hancock‘s landmark Blue Note album Maiden Voyage.

On The Show

This Night Lights program features:

  • music recorded by Mabern and Strozier with the MJT
  • music recorded by Coleman and Little with Max Roach
  • leader dates by Strozier, Little and Mabern stretching from the late 1950s to the end of the 1960s.

Since Little’s death, Coleman and Mabern have performed and recorded together many times. Strozier is not currently active on the jazz scene. The recordings they made in their youth heralded the arrival of a Memphis hardbop school that has, for the most part, gone unremarked in jazz histories.

Note: a future program will be devoted to pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., another musician with strong roots in the mid-20th-century Memphis music scene.

External References

Watch Booker Little and George Coleman with Max Roach in the late 1950s:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jwu7XA1tHo

Music Heard On This Episode

A Few Miles From Memphis
Harold Mabern — A Few Miles From Memphis (Prestige, 1968)
Buy from Amazon »
album cover
A Few Miles From Memphis
Harold Mabern — A Few Miles From Memphis (Prestige, 1968)

Notes: With George Coleman and Buddy Terry on tenor sax.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Rochelle
MJT + 3 — Walter Perkins MJT + 3 (Koch/Vee Jay, 1959)

Notes: With Frank Strozier on alto sax and pianist Harold Mabern (Mabern composition).

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
No Land's Man
MJT + 3 — Message From Walton Street (Koch Jazz, 1960)

Notes: With Frank Strozier on alto sax and Harold Mabern on piano. Walter Perkins composition.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Rounder's Mood
Booker Little — Booker Little and Max Roach (Blue Note, 1958)

Notes: Little compositon, with George Coleman on tenor sax.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Deeds Not Words
Max Roach — Deeds Not Words (Riverside, 1958)

Notes: With Booker Little on trumpet and George Coleman on tenor sax.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
I Can't Understand What I See in You (excerpt)
Harold Mabern — Wailin' (Prestige, 1969)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Waltz of the Demons
Frank Strozier — Fabulous Frank Strozier (Vee Jay, 1960)

Notes: Booker Little composition, with Little on trumpet.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Long Night
Frank Strozier — Long Night (Jazzland, 1961)

Notes: Strozier composition, with George Coleman on tenor sax.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
March of the Siamese Children
Frank Strozier — Long Night/March of the Siamese Children (Jazzland, 1962)

Notes: Strozier on flute, Harold Mabern on piano. Rodgers-Hammerstein composition.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
Strozier's Mode
Harold Mabern — Wailin' (Prestige, 1969)

Notes: Mabern composition, with George Coleman on tenor sax.

Buy from Amazon »
album cover
David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

View all posts by this author »

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from Night Lights Classic Jazz:

Support For Indiana Public Media From

About Night Lights

Search Night Lights

where to hear night lights

This Week On Afterglow

Mr. B: The Billy Eckstine Story

Photo of singer Billy Eckstine

Billy Eckstine was a cultural pioneer who became one of the first black male solo singers to find success singing love songs.

Read more »

Afterglow is WFIU's weekly program of jazz and American popular song hosted by David Brent Johnson.

More from Afterglow »