Oral History Center - UC Berkeley Library

Gildo Mahones: Innovative Pianist and Composer in the Heyday of Modern Jazz

Mahones, Gildo
Mahones, Mary
Crawford, Caroline
Gildo Mahones: Innovative Pianist and Composer in the Heyday of Modern Jazz
Gildo Mahones is a bop-based pianist who grew up in Harlem in the 1930s and 40s and played with virtually all the jazz greats during the 1950s and 60s. Mahones was born to Puerto Rican parents in the Spanish section of East Harlem in 1929. In 1940 the family moved to an apartment behind the Apollo Theatre on 126th Street, and many of the jazz greats he heard there as a teenager, including Duke Ellington and Count Basie, he eventually performed with in the 1950s. Mahones played piano and other percussion instruments in his parents’ Pentecostal Church in his early years, and during high school he formed an ensemble called The Young Dukes of Rhythm, modeled on Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five. In 1948 Mahones went on the road with trumpeter Joe Morris in the South and experienced for the first time racial segregation, something he had not seen in New York. In 1949 he was hired to perform at Minton’s Playhouse in a trio that soon expanded to include Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins and Jesse Drakes. He left Minton’s to serve in the military and in 1953, at the suggestion of Jesse Drakes, became the pianist for Lester Young’s band at Birdland. He wrote dozens of songs, many of which were recorded with Young. “A dream might blossom into a song,” he said when asked about composing. In the oral history Mahones describes Young’s theory of playing, his particular use of language with his musicians, and his relationship with Billie Holiday. Mahones moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to perform with Joe Williams and Harry “Sweets” Edison at the Pied Piper club, and worked with vocalists O.C. Smith, Lou Rawls, James Moody, Big Joe Turner, and Lorez Alexandria, with whom he recorded several albums. In the 1970s he was sought after as a sideman in Southern California clubs and toured Japan and Europe with Benny Carter and with his own band. He and Mary, his wife of 45 years, eventually moved to Oakland to be near their daughter and grandson. He practices most days and performs at local clubs and galleries. The interviews were held in the Bancroft Library and in the Mahones home in Oakland. Mary Mahones took part in some of the interviews and talked animatedly about her encounters with such great jazz figures as Count Basie. Mahones addressed a wide range of issues around jazz: growing up in Harlem, the advent of bebop and its luminaries, jazz vocalism, racism. He speaks in an easy, laid-back fashion that is as effortless as his playing style. The text was read and approved with little editing.
Subject area(s):
Arts and Letters
Interview date(s):
Arts and Letters - Individual Interviews
Mahones, Gildo. "Gildo Mahones: Innovative Pianist and Composer in the Heyday of Modern Jazz." Interview by Caroline Crawford in 2015. Oral History Center, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2016.