One of Jazz’s Most Underrated Saxophonists: Hank Mobley

Aaron Gilbreath
20 min readJan 4, 2020

When my coworker Robert heard that I was getting into jazz, he brought a CD into work for me. “You need this,” he said smiling. He slid the jewel case across the dusty top of my computer terminal. It was Hank Mobley’s Soul Station.

Set against a black background, beneath three rows of simple text, Mobley’s face and shoulders hovered in the center of the album cover, a statuary bust awash in aquamarine. “He looks like he’s high out of his mind,” Robert said. It was true. Head back, eyes hidden beneath heavy lids, the young tenor wore a euphoric smirk whose mix of bliss and self-assurance seemed to dare you to ask what he was so ecstatic about. But what if he wasn’t high, just ecstatic? Couldn’t this be a smile of satisfaction and excitement, the pure childlike reverie musicians feel when playing stirring music in a well-equipped studio? Although I didn’t know it then, Mobley had had drug problems off and on — many jazz players had — but at the time of this recording, he was as clear as his polished horn. You can hear it in the music. This album is his masterpiece. That’s why it’s fitting that he holds up his saxophone in triumph on the cover.

In 1979, at age forty-nine, Mobley told journalist John Litweiler, “It’s hard for me to think of what could be and what should have been. I lived with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk; I walked with them up and down the street. I did not know what it meant when I listened to them cry — until it happened to me.”

The first time I read these sentences, they filled me with gloom. The thought of one of my favorite tenors suffering enough to cry left me grieving into the night. It also raised the question: What happened to Mobley?

What “should have been” — should have. Should. “Should” is the language of outcomes. The word suggests a blueprint of the mechanics behind fate, about our conceptions of fairness, providence, and stakes, as well as a person’s expectations, not just what we’re entitled to, but how much we believe in the American value of “hard work + time = rewards & improvement.” In its grandest application, “should” can suggest the inner workings of cosmic justice, what the universe owes you — reward for effort, reward for morality, Karmic recompense. Here, the word delivers news of destiny…

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.