Junior Mance, veteran jazz pianist whose music was tinged with the blues – obituary

Junior Mance, circa 1970 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Junior Mance, circa 1970 - Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Junior Mance, the pianist, who has died aged 92, had one of the longest careers in music, playing his first professional gig at the age of 10 and retiring at 87.

“One of the most swinging and utterly delightful pianists in jazz”, is how one critic described him, and that seems to have been the general opinion among several generations of jazz lovers.

Julian Clifford Mance was born on October 10 1928; his father was a Chicago clothes presser and amateur pianist of the same name - hence “Junior”. He was able to pick out tunes on the piano at the age of five, and with his father’s encouragement he made remarkable progress, especially in his grasp of the blues idiom.

When he was 10, a neighbour who played in a local band asked him to take the place of their pianist who was ill. His father took him along, he played, was paid, and came home a professional musician.

He played in local bands throughout his teenage years, enrolled for the music course at Roosevelt College, but was suspended for playing boogie-woogie in a practice room and left. This did not upset him unduly since he was already a member of a professional band led by the saxophonist Gene Ammons, with whom, at 19, he made his first recording session.

In 1949 he toured briefly with the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who habitually awarded nicknames to his fellow musicians. Mance’s nickname, “June Bug”, appears as the title of a number they recorded together.

Mance was 22 when he was called up during the Korean War. While on guard duty at Fort Knox he came across the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who was leading the band in the service club. Adderley arranged for him to be transferred to a clerk’s job so that he could play in the band in the evenings. Mance though it likely that this had saved his life, since the death toll of his former unit was high.

Leaving the army in 1953, Mance was house pianist at Chicago’s Bee Hive club for a year, then served as accompanist to the singer Dinah Washington before joining Adderley’s civilian band in 1956. This band did not last long, although Dinah Washington chose them to back her on her album Dinah In The Land Of Hi-Fi (1956).

Junior Mance Trio, London, 1962 - Brian Foskett/National Jazz Archive/Getty
Junior Mance Trio, London, 1962 - Brian Foskett/National Jazz Archive/Getty

In 1958 Mance became a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band; he regarded this as the completion of his jazz education, with Gillespie as his mentor. Among the advice he liked to quote was Dizzy’s observation that maturity in a musician comes when he learns what to leave out.

In 1960, Mance formed the first of many small groups, mainly trios, under his own leadership. His style by this time was a fully developed and instantly recognisable combination of hard bop and soul jazz, with an ever-present accent of the blues.

He counted himself lucky to have been born in Chicago – “Bluesville” as he called it – and to have grown up with the blues as his first musical language. In 1967 he published a book, How to Play Blues Piano.

Mance at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2003 - Brian O'Connor/Getty Images
Mance at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2003 - Brian O'Connor/Getty Images

Until 2011 he was occasionally touring with the remarkable show 100 Gold Fingers, featuring jazz pianists of many styles and ages, and teaching jazz courses at the New School in New York. He finally retired in 2016.

Junior Mance made around 50 albums, both studio and live, under his own name and they are amazingly consistent over more than half a century. A selection, almost at random, would include Junior’s Blues (1962), Live At Sweet Basil (1977), Mance’s Special (1986-88) and At Town Hall, Vols 1 & 2 (1995). There are also shelves full of recordings shared with other artists.

Junior Mance was married four times. He is survived by his fourth wife, Gloria, a stepdaughter from his second marriage and a stepson and stepdaughter from his fourth marriage.

Junior Mance, born October 10 1928, died January 17 2021