The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz, by Cary Ginell is the latest in the Hal Leonard Jazz Biography Series, a series of compact biographies on well-known (but lesser written about) jazz artists. The title is taken from a Herbie Mann composition ‘The Evolution of Man(n)’ that featured on Mann’s debut album on Verve in 1957 and is a romp Mann’s life and career, especially the smorgasbord of music that Mann listened to and performed. Ginell begins the biography Mann’s early life and an exploration of jazz flute before Mann, and how he discovered that the flute could be used in jazz. The exploration of early jazz flute is twinned with Mann’s discovery of Afro-Cuban music via Esy Morales’ (brother to mambo king Noro Morales) Jungle Fantasy. This very path of discovery is an apt and compact look at how Mann would continue his musical path: he would listen to everything and attempt to play everything.
This biography is impeccably researched (though as a tiny scholarly nit-pick- although I realise that this is aimed at a general audience- I really would have liked to see citation notes, particularly for the quotes, it would be nice to know where and when Mann said something), and very engagingly written, effortlessly interweaving interviews (with Mann, his family and friends and colleagues) with secondary research. Ginell examines Mann’s life and music, giving both a sense of immediacy, and not shying away from the more controversial aspects of Mann’s career and personal life. Although this is a fairly short biography (a mere 169 pages in small paperback form not including notes), Ginell manages to peel back the layers of this very complex man and grant the reader a thorough portrait of his life and music.
One of the most fascinating things about this biography is the examination of Mann’s ideas about music. Although Mann was always upfront about wanting to be successful and famous, his musical ideology was also profound: play what you love. This may seem easy but the pressure to conform to either commercial ideals or artistic ideals of a particular community make that much harder than it seems. However, Mann managed to do just that, play what he loved throughout his career- a lesson for all musicians perhaps. When jazz critics were complaining about him ‘selling out’ Mann was quick to point out that by being as popular and successful as he was he was employing jazz musicians, often at times when it was hard to find and sustain work. His main rebuttal to the ‘selling out’ complaint was that he would rather lots of people listen to (and enjoy) his music than to hold up some mythological idea about pure art, and to starve because only a few people are listening. This is a debate that musicians continue to have, and it is certainly food for thought for musicians and fans.
The Evolution of Mann is a thoroughly engaging biography and a fascinating read. Its chapters are short enough that if you really need to pick it up and put it down on a regular basis (you will not want to, but sometimes life interferes with reading!), then you can easily read and digest a chapter, and come back to it later still remembering where you were (a rare feat in many biographies). I would recommend it to jazz fans and flutists of all stripes, and anyone generally interested in the music industry. This is not just a well-told biography, but also an interesting treatise on musical philosophies, art and commercialism, and creating a niche. While Mann may not have been the most technically expert flutist, jazz, Latin-American, and pop/rock flutists (and others) owe him a debt for being inventive and savvy enough to have created the artistic and commercial possibility of flutes in these and other genres.