Born: April 22, 1947 Primary Instrument: Drums
You will have only begun to scratch the surface by identifying the masterful Harvey Mason as just a drummer. Yes, his precision time keeping and versatility have placed him among THE most in-demand and most recorded session drummers of all-time. Yes, his tumbling tom-tom fills and the lickity slick synchronization between his hi-hat cymbals, snare and bass drums are instantly recognizable signatures. Yes, he’s been hired by everyone from Barbra Streisand to James Brown to Henry Mancini to Herbie Hancock to Reba McIntyre to Sergio Mendes to the London Symphony Orchestra. Yes, he has played on well over 1,000 recordings and hundreds of film scores, won four 1st place plaques from Modern Drummer magazine's annual studio poll and has been the first call drummer for the Academy Awards ceremonies on 16 occasions.
However, Harvey Mason is a seasoned and scholarly all-around musician for whom drums were an entry point into vast forums of musical expression.
As a composer, he has written songs recorded by artists ranging from Donald Byrd to the Brothers Johnson as well as a television commercial for Mattell Toys’ Shanti doll. He also composed a percussion piece for Quincy Jones’ The Color Purple score.
As a producer, he introduced the world to the Hawaii-based Christian jazz septet Seawind, which inadvertently brought one of the most in-demand horn arrangers (Jerry Hey) and horn sections (the Seawind horns) to Los Angeles and promptly introduced them to Quincy Jones as tightess and most creative horn section he’d ever heard. (Quincy obviously agreed) He also produced the debut album by Midnight Star (The Beginning), inaugurating what would become one of the ‘80s most influential techno-funk groups, Lee Ritenour’s largest selling hit, Is it You and Dionne Warwick (Fragile).
As a founding member of the contemporary jazz super group Fourplay, Mason flexes his writing, playing and arranging skills with partners Bob James, Nathan East and Larry Carlton (the latter of whom replaced original member Lee Ritenour). Fourplay’s debut album sat atop Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart for thirty-four weeks, leading to a platinum album, three subsequent gold discs, a Soul Train Music Award and three Grammy nominations, to date.
For his work, Mason earned Drummer of the Year honors for the first two years running of the brand new Smooth Jazz Awards.
Finally, his beats have been sampled by many acts, most notably hip hop martyr The Notorious B.I.G.
Indeed, Harvey Mason’s contributions to music stretch into more directions than even those who know much about him can imagine.
From where does all of this boundless talent stem?
The roots of Harvey Mason’s rhythm are as ingrained as DNA. Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on February 22, 1947, he reveled in the rhythms of life as they manifested themselves all around him. He remembers lying in bed at night, locking into the rolling groove of his mother’s washing machine, fluffing his pillow into a ball and playing along to it with his fingers.
Harvey began taking formal drum lessons at age 7, playing in school bands and finally buying his first drum set at the age of 16. He played so amazingly that Atlantic City’s Wonder Gardens Club owner, Sonny McCall, obtained a special license just so the teenaged Mason could play there hassle-free.
Harvey continued his musical education first at the Berklee School of Music, then on full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, studying performance, composing, arranging, percussion and mallets. He received immeasurable preparation for orchestral work from the legendary Vic Firth, tympanist with the Boston Symphony. During his time in Boston, he also put in overtime at Triple A Studios recording everything from jingles to religious albums, unpredictable and diversified situations that custom molded him for the career of a top-flight session musician.
Harvey toured Europe with the great Errol Garner before moving with his family to Los Angeles. He gigged with George Shearing and did one semester of practice teaching at Hoover High School in Glendale to complete his B.A.
During this period, Harvey encountered Marl Young, a composer and Musical Director for The Lucille Ball Show, who asked if he had studied percussion. Taking Mase at his word, Young called him a few days later to do a session at Universal Pictures. I didn't play drums, he shares. It was solely percussion. If I hadn't studied I would have been exposed. That started many sessions at Universal.
Soon after that session, I was called to do a commercial along with seven other percussionists - a 60-piece band for Texaco. (Bassist) Ray Brown saw me and recommended me to Quincy Jones, who promptly called me to play percussion on The Bill Cosby Show (Hicky Burr), which led to subbing for the legendary drummer, Earl Palmer, on The Sammy Davis Show. Before he knew it, Harvey Mason was working as many as three studio sessions a day.
On record dates, Harvey swiftly became a force. From simple figures on a marimba that contributed infinitely to the appeal of The Sylvers’ Fools Paradise and Misdemeanor, and some of the most incredibly sensitive playing ever heard on radio backing the late Minnie Riperton on Memory Lane and Here We Go, to an intricate snare drum-only part on Chick Corea’s Tweedle Dee (from his acclaimed concept album, The Mad Hatter), Harvey honed a knack for doing more than just nailing a written part. He added that Mase Magic that lifted a piece of music from ordinary to extraordinary.
In the realm of ‘70s funk-jazz fusion, Mase was king. His work on Donald Byrd’s commercial breakthrough album, Black Byrd, and a series of successful crossover albums for Blue Note Records led to Harvey’s seminal work on Herbie Hancock’s million-seller Head Hunters (1974), which contained the hit Chameleon (co-composed by Harvey) and Mason’s own arrangement of Hancock’s ‘60s standard, Watermelon Man.
This led to a string of recordings that now comprise Fusion 101 for the study of all aspiring drummers. Those performances include Grover Washington Jr.’s Mister Magic, Bob James’ Three (featuring Westchester Lady), Charles Earland’s Leaving This Planet, Patrice Rushen’s Before the Dawn, The Brecker Brothers’ self-titled debut album, Lee Ritenour’s Captain Fingers, and John Klemmer’s Touch. When Latin rocker Carlos Santana recorded his first jazz album, The Swing of Delight, Harvey was one of the three ace drummers he called. The icing on the cake for this phenomenal ‘70s output was his contribution to George Benson’s triple-platinum selling Breezin’ album with a band that played so seamlessly together, it was as if they were psychically in-tune. Breezin’ became the best selling (real) jazz album of all-time and this group recorded two more classic Benson albums: In Flight and Weekend In L.A.
In 1976, Harvey Mason signed a five-year deal with Clive Davis’ then-new and very progressive Arista Records as a solo artist. He recorded five stylistically diversified LP's there that captured the complete arc of his musical artistry. These albums showcased the writing, arrangements and performances by both A-list talents and gifted newcomers, introducing such phenomenal compositions as Billy Myers’ Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, Jan Hammer’s No Man’s Land and Mason’s own A Song For Heather. There were Earth, Wind and Fire-inspired vocal pieces such as Spell and How Does It Feel. There were unforgettable arrangements of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave, Kenny Loggins’ Set It Free and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. There was even a disco tune (Groovin’ You), albeit one with a hell of a lot more percussion going on than mere four-on-the-floor bass drum. Can you say tympani arrangement? For those albums and Ratamacue one, recorded in 1996 for Atlantic, Mase earned 5 Grammy nominations.
Ever growing and stretching, Harvey went back to school to study at Southwestern Law School (1986) and UCLA (1988), the latter for film scoring.
The man whose precision playing has graced movies for such renowned composers as Michel Colombier (Prince’s Purple Rain), Michel Legrand (Miles Davis’ Dingo), Dave Grusin (Three Days of The Condor, The Fabulous Baker Boys and On Golden Pond), John Williams (Hook), Lalo Schifrin (Rush Hour and The Enforcer), Isaac Hayes (Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner), Johnny Pate (Shaft In Africa), Alan Silvestri (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Alan Menken and Tim Rice (Beauty and The Beast), Thom Newman (the Player), Lion King to name only a few - has decided to get in on the action as well. Among his credits to date as a film composer are Only The Strong and Deadly Takeover, plus orchestration for the television series’ Diagnosis Murder and Mattlock.
Easing into his fourth decade of professional music making, Harvey Mason looks forward to new horizons with Fourplay, on a new record label BMG, a new solo album, more film scoring and his usual choice assignments as a sideman, such as playing on superstar Seal’s 1996 Song of the Year Grammy-winner, Kiss From A Rose and performing with George Duke and Marcus Miller at the Kennedy Center presidential salute of Quincy Jones.
He also took a straight ahead band to Europe for shows that included the North Sea Jazz Festival the world’s largest and assembled contemporary Jazz band, HMO (Harvey Mason Organization) which toured the U.S..
Flip across your radio dial on any given day and you’re sure to come across a gem that Harvey Mason has polished. Today - working overtime in his own Mason home recording studio The Mase remains all over the place!
And he still finds time to coach his youngest son Max’s basketball team.