In 1983, Jazz pianist-composer G. Francis Mlely was on a solo piano concert tour of Europe, when midway along he received information that caused him to suddenly abandon the tour and, because of subsequent events, to leave off playing professionally for nearly two decades. Mlely's 3rd album, "Trio," according to a "Jazz Times" survey, was among the Top 10 most-played record albums in U.S. radio airplay at the time. He had just come from performing before an SRO crowd at BIM-House in Amsterdam, the largest and most prominent Jazz venue in Holland, on his way to other venues in Europe.
Mlely's career was definitely on an upturn. Reviewers were writing great things. "A tour de force of leading edge pianists," wrote Dr. Marshal Stokes in the "Washington Post." Michael Fishman, in "Jazzline," wrote that "Mlely is worthy of the exposure granted our greatest players." Acknowledgments of Mlely's originality came from such as John Simon in "The Village Voice," Serge Loupien in France's major "Jazz Magazine," Don Albert in "The Star," Johannesburg, South Africa, the latter commenting "the future which is Mlely" and accolades published from upwards of a dozen nations.
Long established Jazz greats recognized Mlely's talent, Jon Hendricks saying how he was in the line of the great Jazz pianists, and Earl 'Fatha' Hines considering becoming Mlely's manager, interrupted when Hines succumbed to the illness that ultimately led to Hines' death.
In that 1983 tour, following a sold-out performance in Mons, Belgium, Francis Mlely, or "G.F." as he is also known professionally and by friends, was scheduled into one of Europe's largest Jazz festivals, located on the Austro-Hungarian border. Posters announcing his upcoming appearance were appearing throughout the region, when, suddenly, he got the information that caused him to immediately return to the United States. The tour was cancelled. He flew to California.
The reason for doing so was in order to take care of his son. The boy's mother had died a few years earlier, when he was only five years of age, and the child's care-provider, who had been contracted for the duration Mlely would need to be in Europe, unexpectedly and inexplicably declined to care for the boy any further. She demanded Mlely return at once, saying she was ready to put the boy on a train or plane as soon as possible.
Thereafter, upon returning to the United States, despite calls for him to return to Europe, Mlely quit professional music, and in order to keep his son from urban gang influence, moved to rural California, where father and son lived for several years besides Tuolumne River near Yosemite National Park. So far out into the country that the boy went to an elementary school in a building that contained all eight grades in its one room.
Year pass. When the boy grows up and leaves home to be on his own, Mlely moves to Los Angeles. There he strives to get back into professional music, beginning with songs, writing both words and music, as well as ghost-writing for others. His work gets recorded and produced by stars musically diverse from one another as Freddie Hubbard and George Harrison.
But, there are yet more delays in his performing career, unexpected difficulties, substantial physical injury. An avid bicyclist and wilderness hiker, within a 2-year stretch he breaks his left hip, breaks his left knee twice, and, most significantly, breaks a wrist, all of which require several years of healing. Worse for his morale are the doctors' prognoses that he cannot expect the wrist to return to its former shape well enough to perform professionally again on piano.
Mlely sets out to prove the doctors wrong. He moves to Hawaii to heal; and he moves there, as well, to marry his fiancée of their teen years, Billie Jean, herself a dancer. They had each married others, survived the deaths of their former spouses, and had raised children who were no longer living at home.
Mlely begins to develop special re-training techniques, exercising daily for hours. Too soon, however, he makes some precipitate performance forays out into the public, failing to play up to the level he had played at before, and far less than the level he is ultimately to reach. He was still not ready. Promoters, agents, even other musicians, begin to write him off. He is persistent, continuing to combat the recurring disability with a level of patience and endurance he admits was beyond any he thought possible for himself.
To test, and perhaps to prove, himself, he embarks on a new kind of venture, producing a video series for television, taking advantage of Hawaii's up-to-date community-access television facilities. The series is called "Jazz Piano," in which he features, wherein he discusses and demonstrates "the art and craft of Jazz piano."
Though still not at the top of his form, the series does subsequently result in at least one of the audio tracks of his performances on screen getting onto his first album in 20 years, the then soon-to-be released CD "Re-Entry."
The TV series, consisting of eight segments, garners some positive support. After a year-long run in its own weekly half-hour time-slot, "Jazz Piano" gets an additional time-slot to run concurrently each week, a decision made independently by the studio, Olelo Television of Hawaii. The series, apparently, had sticking power.
And, rare for community-access television, the series also gets reviewed on the Web, on a prominent Industry eZine. Ben Ohmart, Assistant Editor of MusicDish, wrote, "Mlely ... has that annoying ability, like Chico Marx, to make playing seem so insanely easy. No open mouth, no breathing hard or Bernstein-like tirades: G just seems to stare at his fingers, and his crawling, spirited fingers rush around the keys, finding the blacks and whites with hardly a worry. A delight to watch."
The activity of producing the series also brings about a greater focus that helps Mlely not only to conquer the physical challenge of his injured wrist, but to complete tracks for his first CD in 20 years, on the JazCraft label. It is also the first of several CDs on JazCraft to come and to be released that combine for an audio CD series entitled "The Fine Art Of Jazz Piano."
Given limited physical distribution, "Re-Entry" is released, but sales are mainly by way of a web site on the Internet (http://home1.gte.net/jazcraft). Without significant airplay on certain urban stations, there is little chance commercially for any recording. Media have a short memory. But, reviewers who take the time to hear it are mightily impressed.
If only one thing were to be pointed out about Mlely's music, it would be its originality. In "Form, Freedom, and Originality," a segment of the video series, Mlely observes that originality "must do two things; first, it must satisfy the tradition and, second, it must make a difference that contributes to that tradition." He applies this not just to original material but equally to the performance of standards. A reviewer in Chicago noted how hearing Mlely perform a familiar standard is like hearing it for the first time.
His solo piano style, though occasionally referencing others', is unlike any. It is solo jazz piano without resort to continuous walking basslines, stride, steady chordal comping, or to any of the usual devices. Yet, he utilizes those devices in parts.
Additional to standards, are his own originals, many of them compositions which widen the musical landscape for Jazz harmonically; comprised of a complexity "that involves rather than puts off the listener. He is as clear as a bell." So writes Phyllis A. Lodge, co-author with McCoy Tyner of Tyner's upcoming autobiography.
She also notes the differences Mlely is making. "G. Francis Mlely's "Re-Entry" may be heralding his re-emergence into the tantalizingly perilous world of music. It could just as easily be talking about a Re-Entry into Earthly experience from a different musical dimension - one that is best explored with an insightful, powerful guide. Mlely is such a guide, and his "Re-Entry" clearly harks to a streaming musical dimension."
It is worth noting here that Mlely is also author of a new theory for Jazz players, an advanced concept presented in manuscript form currently under review by Prof. Willie Ruff at Yale University, himself half of the acclaimed Mitchell-Ruff Duo.
Ms. Lodge is not alone among reviewers to note Mlely's singular style. Mlely "has a unique way of moving back and forth between the stated melody and his own improvisational ideas," writes Dave Nathan, longtime reviewer for AllMusicGuide.com. "His compositions are filled with invention and bewitching musical patterns which fit his style well. Very impressive stuff, indeed." continues Nathan. And from Lee Prosser, Editor of JazzReview.com on "Re-Entry" - "A standout Jazz pianist who shines in everything he plays ... The genius of G. F. Mlely ... is solo piano at its best."
Jazz is a vast, amorphic field. From groove-riding, Jazz-light widget to the aleatoric anarchy of Freeform, it just might be a musical free-for-all where anything goes calling itself Jazz. Who's to say? No one owns the word. Generations emerge with tastes for, so-called, new and hybrid forms of Jazz. They make it up for themselves.
What's it all about, Alfie? Is it about success? Achievement? In America, success is not always about achievement; achievement does not always result in success. In the mercantile culture, success, regardless of achievement, is all that matters, and that is measured at the bottom of the financial statement. A field of human expression becomes an industry, driven by marketplace economics, on "hot" product doing the catchy thing - pop culture becomes the totality.
But, there are Jazz musicians out there, heroically against the odds, defying the market, pursuing the meaning of their art. That is truth. Truth is what is rooted in the lasting.
This is a story of two achievements, one human, the other musical. Mlely has in deeds proven the doctors wrong. "Call it a testimonial to the power of Mlely's musical will," writes Phyllis Lodge. It is a trail of endurance.
Music and the human, the wide possibilities of Jazz - as it has been, as it can be - fused into a pianist-composer who, by working within and broadening the mainstream, creates genuinely new and exciting music.