When Peter Erskine was in junior high school, he was taking lessons from Billy Dorn and checking out all of the vibes players of the time, including Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Victor Feldman, Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, and Gary Burton. “Then I read something in a DownBeat magazine interview with flautist Jeremy Steig, who was talking all sorts of praise about a Mike Mainieri,” Erskine recalls. “So, I looked for any album with Mike’s name on it — not aware of his touring escapades with Buddy Rich, where he actually was Buddy Rich as far as a number of audiences in foreign nations were concerned when Buddy bailed on a State Department tour! I found Mike’s second album as a leader, titled Insight, and it was a life-changer!
“Mike bridged musical genres so fluidly and profoundly, something he would continue to do as we teamed up not that many years later in the Steps/Steps Ahead bands,” Erskine said. “It can be said that Mike Mainieri changed the course of music, steering that course by way of the vibes. He and Gary Burton are, in my estimation, the only two vibraphone players who can lay claim to that distinction. Mike has also done more to help develop the instrument, being a major force in terms of the vibraphone becoming amplified, electrified, MIDIfied, and 4-octave-fied! His artistry still brings me goosebumps when I listen to him.”
Michael T. Mainieri Jr. was born in New York on July 4, 1938. He began playing vibraphone at age 10. “I was very fortunate because I came from a family of show-business people who were tap dancers, singers, and composers,” Mainieri said in a 1997 Percussive Notes interview. “So I was surrounded by music ever since I was a child. My first ‘instrument’ was tap dancing, which gave me an advantage in terms of rhythmic concept at a very early age.”
Mainieri’s parents liked to go hear the big bands that regularly played in New York during the 1940s, and they took Mike with them. “I got to hear Lionel Hampton at the Apollo Theatre when I was really young,” Mainieri remembered. “After hearing Hampton play vibes and drums, and seeing him tap dance on one of the drums, I decided that I wanted to become a vibraphonist. So my mother bought me a 2 1/2-octave Deagan vibraphone that was made during World War II and had cardboard resonators. It sounded beautiful, and I still have that instrument. She dragged me downtown to study with a fellow named Lem Leach, who was an amazing teacher. Unfortunately, he died very young. He could have had a wonderful career.”
Leach taught Mainieri an unorthodox four-mallet grip. The inside mallets are held in the usual position between the thumb and index finger, but the outer mallets are held between the ring finger and pinky. “My grip allows you to move from a major tenth to a minor second in the bat of an eyelash,” Mainieri explained. “People who use the more traditional grip, where the outer mallets are held between the index and middle fingers, are usually playing in thirds, fourths, and fifths. The advantage of that technique is that you can get a better grip on the mallets and play with more power, and it’s easier to learn, but you have to play anything chromatic in a different way and use a sort of cross-malleting.”
Mainieri was also strongly influenced by the four-mallet playing of Red Norvo, and especially enjoyed the trio that Norvo had with guitarist Tal Farlow and bassist Charles Mingus. Mainieri also cites Adrian Rollini. “A lot of people have never heard of him, but he was an excellent four-mallet player,” Mainieri says. “He played in high society cabarets and places like that.”
Mainieri credits his family with providing the ideal atmosphere in which a young musician could learn. “We would have family jam sessions where everyone would perform,” Mainieri recalls. “I would accompany my aunts and uncles when they would sing the standards they did on gigs. So by the time I was in my early teens, I already knew five- or six-hundred standards by heart, plus all the Irish, Jewish, and Italian songs you needed for weddings.”
By the time Mike was 13 he was leading his own bands. One of Mainieri’s first groups included a 15-year-old female guitarist and a 15-year-old bassist. They auditioned for the Paul Whiteman radio show and won. They also performed on Whiteman’s TV show, and that led to appearances on a variety of children’s TV shows. In addition, Mike toured with Whiteman’s band as a featured instrumentalist.
In 1956 Mike joined Buddy Rich’s band after sitting in with the Rich band at the Village Gate. Rich introduced him by saying, “We’ve got a kid here from the Bronx who says he can play the vibes and looks like he has his father’s suit on. So I’d like to invite him up on stage and see if he can play as well as his father says he can.” With that, 17-year-old Mainieri took the stage. “I set up my vibes and Buddy kicked off ‘Cherokee’ at an amazing tempo,” Mainieri recalled. “I played about 40 choruses — at least, it seemed like 40 choruses. I got a standing ovation and Buddy hired me right there.”
A few days later Mainieri was in the studio with Rich’s band recording an album, and a week later the band opened at Birdland, opposite Miles Davis. And a week after that, Rich fired everyone in the band — except Mainieri. “He told me to hire a new band and write all the arrangements,” Mike says. “He just laid it in my lap, and I remained with him for six years. My experience with him was amazing. He took me under his wing and I became like the son he never had.” While with Rich, 20-year-old Mainieri won DownBeat magazine’s International Jazz Critic’s Award.
After six years touring with Rich, Mainieri wanted to get married and stay in one place, so he quite Rich’s band and started accepting studio work in New York. Rich’s band included a conga player named Dave Lucas, whose cousin owned a jingle business in New York. After leaving Rich, Mainieri and Lucas started writing rock ’n’ roll jingles, which, Mainieri said, the established jingle writers didn’t want to do. “Dave and I were heavily into the Beatles,” Mike explained. “The culture was changing, and it even affected the studio musicians. Before the 1960s, being a studio musician was shirt, tie, and jacket, and it was very politically run. When the music started opening up, a lot of the older players couldn’t play that music, or they didn’t want to. Even though I was a traditionalist in some ways, I was part of this new breed.”
That “new breed” included such players as guitarist Larry Coryell, flutist Jeremy Steig — whom Mike played with in a group called Jeremy and the Satyrs — Michael and Randy Brecker, and other jazz musicians who were incorporating rock into jazz. Mainieri was also participating in late-night jam sessions that led to the formation of the group While Elephant, which included drummer Steve Gadd. Mainieri then played in a group called L’Image, with Gadd, bassist Tony Levin, and keyboardist Warren Bernhardt, who had all moved to Woodstock.
When that band folded, Mainieri went back to the New York studios. He, Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, Don Grolnick, and Gadd did some playing and recording as Steps. “The Steps thing started out like jam sessions,” Mainieri says. “I wrote a couple of tunes, and Don and Brecker each brought in a couple. When we were doing gigs at [New York club] Seventh Avenue South, we were playing ‘Stella by Starlight’ and the standard fare.”
For Mainieri, it was a return to the jazz world from which he had been absent for so long that some people wondered who this new jazz vibraphonist was that had arrived on the scene. “For me, straight-ahead jazz had been dead for a lot of years,” he says. “So I was really not involved in the traditional jazz scene in the ’60s and ’70s. I was more involved in what is now called fusion.”
But for fans of straight-ahead jazz, Steps was a breath of fresh air. Like Mainieri, all of the members had strong mainstream jazz backgrounds, but all had been involved in other forms of music for several years. When they began playing standards together, they did so with energy, enthusiasm, and a desire to bring traditional jazz into the present.
“Steps was a lot of fun,” Mainieri says. “We played in Japan a few times and made a few records, and then Gadd left. Peter Erskine joined and we signed with Elektra Musician, and we made three albums for them and did some limited touring.
“I was also writing and playing a lot of sessions,” Mainieri said. “I must have played on, literally, hundreds of records. I’d do 30 sessions a week and turn down another 30. In one day I’d do all kinds of music — maybe a gospel session in the morning, then a pop record, and at night do something with Art Farmer. It was a challenge playing in all of these genres, and also very exciting.”
Steps Ahead began as an acoustic group, but during the 1980s, electronics became very sophisticated with MIDI, synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines, and electronic wind instruments. Mainieri had already been experimenting with ways to amplify his vibes with various types of pickups, and he and the other members of Steps Ahead embraced the new technology. “It’s been totally our own decision to go more electric,” Mainieri told writer Jany Sabins in a 1986 Modern Percussionist article. “We’re moving ahead, and it’s not with any pretense. It’s just the way we think and the way we hear music. There are still remnants of the old band there. My vibes are now MIDIed with a couple of synthesizers, Brecker is playing an electric instrument, and Peter’s drums are triggering Simmons. So we are incorporating some of the new sounds, but the essence of the band is a set of vibes.” Steps Ahead has continued off and on over the years, with Mainieri ultimately being the only original member of the group. “Steps Ahead was the most electric I ever got and ever intend to get, in terms of sheer energy and volume,” he said in 1994. “The current version of Steps is much more acoustic, and I’m liking that more and more.”
In 1995, Mainieri released the American Diary album, featuring original music as well as compositions by such diverse composers as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Frank Zappa. A second album, American Diary — The Dreamings, was released in 1999, and Mainieri assembled an American Diary band (including Erskine, who had played on both albums) for a concert at PASIC 2003 in Louisville.
In between his band projects, Mainieri stayed busy in the studios as a musician, arranger, and producer. He performed and recorded with such artists as Toots Theilsmans, George Benson, Sonny Stitt, Jack McDuff, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Etta Jones, Urbie Green, Paul Desmond, Kenny Burrell, Bob James, Manny Album, Eliane Elias, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Laura Nyro, Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Michael Franks, Tim Hardin, Dianne Reeves, Dianna Krall, Boz Scaggs, Carly Simon, Janis Ian, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin, Marc Knopfler and Dire Straits, Don McLean, Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones, Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Dave Liebman, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Marcus Miller, Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, and Jane Monheit. He also released several solo albums over the years, including Blues on the Other Side (1962), Insight (1967), Journey Through an Electric Tube (1968), Love Play (1967), Wanderlust (1981), Man Behind Bars (1999), Northern Lights (2006), and Crescent (2010).
Ultimately, Mainieri’s success in the studios was not only based on his skills as a vibraphonist, but also on his background as an arranger, which enabled him to conceive a role for himself within the overall picture. “People would hire me as a percussionist for a lot of sessions,” he explains. “I’d bring all my percussion gear, but inevitably there would be a vibraphone or marimba in the studio, and because of my reputation, people would ask me to play vibes on records that ordinarily they would never have used vibes on. For example, I came in to play congas and percussion on Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ and I wound up playing marimba on ‘Vincent.’
“So I had an opportunity to present the instrument in a completely different way. I sort of imposed it on a lot of records. Most arrangers didn’t know how to write for the vibraphone, and the rock and folk artists didn’t realize that the beauty of the instrument could lend itself to their songs. So, being sort of musically aggressive, I would take over a lot of sessions where people couldn’t write the music down or express an idea. Often, I became the arranger on a session for lack of one being there. That gradually led to people asking me to put together ensembles for sessions, which eventually led to people asking me to produce sessions.” Mike produced and arranged albums with such artists as Carly Simon, George Benson, Ben Sidran, Andy Summers, and Dee Carstensen.
In 1991, Mike created his own jazz label, NYC Records. The independent label is a vehicle for exposing new and established artists such as vocalist Luciana Souza, pianist Rachel Z, alto saxophonist Myron Walden, and tenor saxophonist George Garzone, as well as Mainieri’s own projects. “Over the years I had put out a lot of records on a bunch of labels, but my music wasn’t really out there,” Mainieri says. “I started NYC as sort of a vanity label — a boutique label. But I expanded it and signed some other artists. I felt that starting my own label was another way of breaking the rules, and it gives me great pleasure to break rules.”
In 1986, Steve Smith was invited to join Steps Ahead, and he has been a member of the group ever since. “The last gig I played with Mike Mainieri and Steps Ahead was in November 2019,” Smith says. “Mike is a pleasure to be on tour with, both on and off stage. At each performance, Mike’s playing is of the highest degree of creativity and musicianship, inspiring all the members of the group. As a traveling companion on tour, he is a gentleman, fun and full of stories from his lifetime of musical experiences dating back to his early years with Buddy Rich, to the NYC session scene in the ’70s, to his more recent collaborations with the leading musicians of Norway. Mike played vibes on a song on my 2023 Vital Information album, Time Flies, and at 84 years old, he’s playing as great as ever!”
Mike Mainieri credits: www.allmusic.com/artist/mike-mainieri-mn0000490562/credits
Mike Mainieri discography: www.allmusic.com/artist/mike-mainieri-mn0000490562/discography