Mose's Better Blues

A trip to Long Island reveals an Allison wonderland

Allison can remember no ill will directed his way at any of the all-black establishments. He was a musician; he came in connected. Only whites gave him a hard time, such as the time a couple of detectives in Chicago ran him out of a black club, warning he'd get his throat cut in there. Since he couldn't read music well, he didn't get hired for Southern variety shows, featuring comedians and dancers with their own music. But the R&B bands on Beale Street rarely used horn charts or written arrangements; everything was done by ear.

Allison took eight years to get through college, beginning at Ole Miss, with an 18-month interruption for the Army at the end of World War II. He played trumpet with the 179th Army Ground Forces Band in the States. Finishing with an English major at Louisiana State, Allison wrote a few short stories in college. He recalls a literary magazine's rejection letter from the late 1940s. It said his story showed promise but didn't flow. "It was a bunch of vignettes about Tippo, Mississippi," he says. "It wasn't supposed to flow." This single rejection stopped him in his tracks; he never tried his hand at fiction again.

He first came to New York in 1951, the only destination for an aspiring jazz player. "I played with Brew Moore, a real good tenor player from Mississippi, one of my favorites of all time," he recalls. "He knew everybody in New York. There were lofts where you'd go around for jam sessions. Hardly anybody was working during the summer of '51. All these people I'd been readin' about were standing around scufflin'. Miles Davis was workin' only an occasional Monday night at Birdland. Gerry Mulligan was workin' only an occasional night out in Queens someplace."

Allison's point man in New York was legendary jazz player Al Cohn, who set him up in Manhattan. "When I came back to live there in '56, it had perked up a lot. I'd met Al's wife, a singer named Marilyn Moore, when playing down in Galveston. She sat in singing, and she liked what I was doing, and told me if I ever came to New York to call Al, and gave me his number. Al picked me right up, had me and my wife out to dinner and the whole number. He referred me to people. He was writing arrangements for everybody at the time. Then he and Zoot Sims started playing a lot, and Al got me on my first record date."

The 1960s were golden years when labels like Atlantic could afford to have prestige artists, who brought respect to the company without necessarily toting in bags of loot. Respect alone, and all its abstract benefits, was actually worth something. In the early '60s, Atlantic might sign a man like Solomon Burke or Mose Allison within minutes of him merely walking through the office door, on Columbus Circle in New York.

"I lost contact with Nesuhi [Ertegun] in the last few years, but he was a friend during those Atlantic years," Allison says. "I just walked in, and he signed me to Atlantic. I just walked in and said, 'Look, I just got released from Columbia. I was with Prestige, which was too little, then Columbia, which was too big. I'd like to talk to you guys.'"

This inability to fit neatly into a narrow marketing niche wreaks hell on careers. It's a corporate world of industrial music merchandising. If you're innovative or an original in the 1990s, forget about it, brother--move to France.

If it weren't for the fact that Allison's albums are recorded like traditional jazz--that is, quickly made affairs, live in the studio with a small group--he might not have such a prolific discography. Even in the 1950s, his first deal with Prestige was for six albums in two years, for which he was paid only $250 per. But taking care of business quickly in the studio suits him fine. "Records are just shadows," he believes. "They're how you felt that day, when material was new. Albums should take no longer than two days."

Record companies also have never let Allison release instrumentals, which is why live shows remain so crucial to him. Chromatic funk aside, each song contains a mandatory piano solo, which comes from the jazz side of Mose Allison. Just where did his particular piano style come from?

"My dad played stride piano, a ragtime sort of thing, Scott Joplin-inspired, Fats Waller," he explains. "He was semiprofessional, he played some jobs with a band when he was young. My dad taught himself to play by watchin' a player piano. I started taking music lessons when I was 5, but once I realized I could pick things out by ear, I refused to learn to read music. I'm not a good reader now."

When Allison moved to Smithtown in 1963, there were 13 acres of woods behind the backyard. A decade ago, development encroached. "I could go for walks in those woods," he says, looking out his backyard.

So, he is asked, do you want to be buried on Long Island or in Mississippi?
"I intend to be cremated," Allison says. "I'm gonna leave it up to my kids to scatter my ashes. One possibility would be the farm I was born on in Mississippi. It's fallin' down, but the ruins of the old house are still there. I get down there once or twice a year."

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