On a very early recording, pianist/singer Roberta Mandel (pictured) can be heard in a vocal version of "Sentimental Journey" with Boyd Raeburn's seminal Jazz group. Though Mandel wasn't a regular with any of Raeburn's ensembles, she was an ubiquitous figure during that era. She'd studied classical piano for a while. (Her mother, also a pianist, taught both Roberta and her brother, spending an hour a night with each). By the time Roberta was twelve or thirteen, she'd discovered Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.
"There was a radio station at that time," Mandel told me recently, "that played Jazz all afternoon. So when I got back from high school, I would always listen. That's where I learned what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. We'd have sessions at my house, where there was always a piano, and while I was in high school, I also sang. I'd write the chords out if I wasn't going to be playing, and people were always amazed that someone who could sing knew something about music."
Roberta is glad that she had her classical training when she did because she feels that most instructors in that genre don't teach their students harmony of any kind. "They show them hand positions, dynamics, lots of technique; but then they ask them to play an A-flat chord and they're completely confused."
For a while, Mandel thought she'd become a teacher herself, so she learned to play virtually all of the brass and string instruments in order to pass a comprehensive exam. Roberta attended college in San Francisco, her hometown, along with Vernon Alley and Jerome Richardson among others. She remembers that they would all "get in one of those tiny practice rooms and play 'I Got Rhythm' until a teacher would come along and say, 'you're not practicing scales,' and throw us out. In those years, Jazz was a poorhouse music."
Nevertheless, Mandel persisted, and by the time she left college, she knew she didn't want to teach. The next six years were spent on the road with a group called ("sounds terribly corny now," she laughed) Two Beaux and a Peep. "I saw a lot of places I wanted to see, and some I didn't, and got to hear a lot of different folks. I learned a lot musically; for instance, how not to get in another player's way, which is very important if you're a pianist.
"We played all over the U.S., especially in the South, when segregation was really horrible. I took a bunch of chances, doing all the wrong things, like drinking at blacks-only fountains, going to black ladies' rooms. It was a feeble protest on my part, I guess, but since I've lived in the West all my life, I was never taught to hate anybody - black, white, Jewish, Asian, whatever.
"When we were on the road, I met the man I eventually married, Dr. Bill Mandel. He was chief of medicine at Chanute Field, just south of Chicago. We [the band] were playing at the Officers' Club. I lived in the nurses' quarters on the base for the first two weeks, then the band was given a house to use. We were working in the small room, and Woody Herman's Orchestra came through while we were there, appearing in the big room.
"It was our night off, so we got to listen to them, and then invited several of the musicians over to our house. I cooked some food for them because they were going to drive back to New York that night. We all listened to some records I'd brought along with me - I was probably dragging around Oscar Peterson's first thing in those daysand some Ellington and Basie LPs."
Whenever Roberta's band went to Toronto, Canada, they'd always go and hear Peterson and Ray Brown, and they became good friends. "When they were on the road," she said, "they'd come and rehearse at my mother's house. I still have that same Steinway that belonged to my parents. At that time Oscar didn't have in his contract that he had to have a decent piano. When he was at the Blackhawk, the piano was awful - even when Thelonious Monk was there. I took my mother to hear Monk once, and he was playing all these weird things. My mother said, really loudly, 'He doesn't sound like he practices very much.' I just about jumped under the table."
Mandel remains close to her high school buddy, Jerome Richardson, visiting him and his wife in New York a couple of times a year. She was able to acquire his services last year for the Jazz Now annual party. Quite a coup!
She also fondly recalls the time singer Maxine Sullivan stayed at her house while fulfilling a Bay Area engagement. "I had made some of Ernie Lewis's red beans and rice, and that's all she ate. She's the best example of smoke-and-drink-all-you-want. It took me months to get the smell of cigarettes out of the guest room. [But] she was incredibly great, had a perfect memorycould remember every place she'd played, where and when. It was history right in my bedroom."
Mandel herself is no small part of history at this juncture of her life. Just departing her seventh decade, she still devotes some twenty hours a week to music, including gigs with bands led by Ralph Harsha, Herbert Mims, and Junius Courtney and regular rehearsals with her own group, which includes trumpeter Frank Fisher, alto saxophonist Bill Stewart, tenor saxophonist Robert Smith, and drummer Ray Fisher. Wyatt "Bull" Ruther [JN, November/December 1996] held down the bass chair until he passed away recently. Roberta wrote some three-horn parts for the band but was disappointed at the lack of trombonists. "If any kids are reading this," she said, "they should take up trombone." And on New Year's Eve, she drove a round-trip of ninety-six miles to provide music for two parties.
Roberta sent me a tape of her playing with various bands. One of the tunes was Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count," the last composition he wrote before he died. "I transcribed it from 'And His Mother Called Him Bill.' It was so gorgeous, I just kept doing it even though it took a long time. Then I sent it to the National Museum of American History Archive Center because they didn't have a copy of it." Mandel has a letter from the institution, in which it acknowledges her "donation of the fine copy of your excellent transcription of Billy Strayhorn's composition 'Blood Count.'"
Another fond memory for this seasoned pro is the time she subbed for the ailing Tee Carson in the Count Basie band under the direction of Frank Foster, during a San Francisco date back in 1989, "which day shall live in famy (as opposed to infamy)," she proudly exclaimed. "I had a great time. The piano book was quiet extensive and all out of order. But fortunately, I had played a lot of those tunes. And the rhythm section couldn't have been better. I also recorded, with my little tape machine under the piano, 'Li'l Darlin'' and a few other things, which I still have."
Although not exactly a household name, even in Jazz circles, Roberta Mandel's contribution is a slice of Jazz history and should be accorded a place in the annals of our music. She continues to work out, both musically and physically, keeps in touch with as many of her contemporaries as possible, and enjoys playing with the younger generation, but points out that "people in our age group know all the tunes, and a lot of the kids don't. When they want to play 'Stardust' in C, I say I'm too old to play it in C, I've been playing it in D-flat all my life!"
by Francesca Nemko
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