An interview with jazz and blues singer Mose Allison

By James Brewer
29 December 2010
Photograph © Michael Wilson

The opportunity presented itself in November to attend a performance by blues artist Mose Allison at a jazz club in the Detroit area. This was my first time seeing him perform live, although I had been familiar with his music since youth. I have just recently become reanimated by his music, which has always made a strong connection, but I was simply unaware of the extent of his recorded work over the years.

Mose Allison turned 83 last month. His combination of eloquent bebop piano licks and down-to-earth, but scathingly witty message, still makes for irresistible listening. (See “The ‘cool little cluster’ that is Mose Allison’s brain”.) Mose’s music has never been dumbed down. Its sensibility was formed by years of gigging with some of the best jazz artists around—Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, not to mention Al Cohn. Mose’s voice has never been a remarkable instrument, but it always has something to say.

For the benefit of critical listeners, Mose has shared his view about the state of the world: the domination of money over everything, the growing lack of empathy on the part of the powers-that-be for the population, wars and more wars, and an underlying hypocrisy in society.

Mose refused to be pigeonholed by the music industry. He has managed to carve out a place where he could make his own music. Over his career—spanning more than sixty years—he has produced a vast catalog of recordings. If listeners make a special effort to find it, that body of recordings includes work with the ensembles of artists such as the aforementioned Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. The record business, for its own reasons, has carved up music into walled-off “genres,” which in general serve to obscure the commonalities of human experience and expression.

Musical influences are much broader than generally acknowledged and they don’t adhere to the lines drawn by the industry. Even before rural electrification, music was shared through different means such as church choirs and social gatherings, popular reform and protest movements, and early recordings. With the advent of electricity, an explosion of music spread far and wide over radios and corner jukeboxes.

The young Mose Allison Jr. lived through this in his hometown of Tippo, Mississippi. His family was musical, and through his grandfather, owned a player piano. His father had taught himself to play the songs on the rolls they owned by following the keys as the piano roll moved. Mose Jr. took to the keyboard early on, but played the boogie woogie music that he had picked up elsewhere, to the bemusement of his father.

Mose apparently sucked up music like a sponge, from influences such as Louis Jordan, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy and many others, which he would hear on local jukeboxes, by then ubiquitous in the rural South. Even gas stations hosted the new machines, which became a conduit, spreading the latest musical styles far and wide.

I had the good fortune to speak with Mose Allison recently about his musical career, during a break in his active schedule.

James Brewer: I wrote in my review that you “came under the tutelage of Al Cohn” when you got to New York. I may have understated your musical abilities by that time.

Mose Allison: Not sure you’d call it “tutelage.” I worked down South for several years. I worked in Dallas and a lot of places down South, like Florida . . . so my playing was pretty much already developed by the time I went to New York.

JB: Musicians in general have historically overlooked or ignored racial stigmas and limits, probably because they are interested in each other’s musical styles, etc., above all.

MA: Well, that’s the way it was for me. I was asked to leave a black club in Memphis by the white police once, but that didn’t keep me away.

JB: So you eventually did get to New York City around 1956 and hooked up with Al Cohn.

MA: When my wife and I came into town he invited us to his house for dinner. And he invited me to play in his regular gig at the Half Note in the Village.

JB: There was a thriving music scene in Greenwich Village [New York City] in the 50s and 60s . . .

MA: There were a lot of sessions going on in lofts around there. You could play all night in different lofts. That’s where I met Frank Isola [the jazz drummer]. He got me my first gig with Stan Getz.

JB: Dave Van Ronk wrote an autobiography before he died. Are you familiar with him?

MA: Oh, yeah, I know him. He’s a blues player.

JB: Well, he wrote something in his autobiography that referred to you. He described this mystique among some jazz musicians and listeners that serious jazz players just didn’t sing. And he said a lot those types stopped taking you seriously as a jazz pianist the moment you opened your mouth. So my question is, what is it that made you write and sing songs with lyrics?

MA: Well, I wrote my first song when I was thirteen. It’s just what I did. Later, in New York in the mid-fifties, that’s what the record companies wanted. They wanted songs with words.

JB: In one of your interviews, you mentioned that producer Jerry Wexler [Atlantic Records] was always pressuring you to make certain changes in your music, so it would be more commercially viable.

MA: Well, yeah, he wanted me to go down to Muscle Shoals [Alabama] and play with the bands that Atlantic Records had down there and play more popular stuff. I didn’t want to do it. There were a lot of suggestions I didn’t take.

JB: If you had, you might have become more popular.

MA: I think I would have. My position was, if it becomes a hit then I’ll have to do that all the time, over and over again. And if it was something that I didn’t like playing the first time, well, I just didn’t want to do that.

JB: I have to tell you that I personally rediscovered your music in the course of trying to find the best version of “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues” [a Duke Ellington tune].

MA: Yeah, I remember you writing that.

JB: I got all the different versions of it I could find and concluded yours was the best. You made some nice changes to it.

MA: Yeah, I changed things and added my own words. I always do that.

JB: You’ve been touring for a long time. I was fortunate enough to catch your performance at the Dirty Dog in Detroit recently. It seemed very spontaneous. You appear to play what you feel like at any given moment.

MA: I do it that way. I may have a different song count or different key signatures to make it a well-rounded set, but generally, that’s what I do.

JB: You really look like you enjoy yourself when you’re performing.

MA: I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s always a challenge, just like the first night I played. It’s just the same after sixty years. You never know how it’s going to feel or what’s going to happen.

JB: You’ve been touring pretty much continuously for all that time. How do you do it?

MA: Traveling gets hard sometimes, but I enjoy the playing.

JB: Do you have a lot of gigs booked into the future?

MA: Well, I have a few in January. I have a regular thing I do at Blues Alley in Washington and a few other jobs booked earlier. I may take some time off after that. I’m not too sure. After traveling too much this past year ... I went to Europe three times and played all over this country.... I’ve decided to take time off, maybe slow down. I’ll play all the jobs I’ve committed to and then reconsider what I’ll do. I haven’t been accepting anything for a few months, but I may change my mind.

JB: Have you got anything to add about the ups and downs of your career over the years?

MA: No, I’ve been happy with my career. I just keep doing what I like, as I said. It’s a challenge every night. You never know how it’s going to go or how you’re going to feel. Every night is a new thing.

JB: Well, I was very happy to be able to catch your show at the Dirty Dog last month. I hope you keep doing shows for a long time.

MA: Thank you.

Mose’s wife Audre had this to say, via email:

He always wrote lyrics about things that were on his mind ... and was happy that others found them interesting ... or right. I think he just happened to be saying things that a lot of people think, or things that made people think. You know he’s been called the William Faulkner of jazz, the Mark Twain of jazz, The Sage of Tippo, and “the philosopher.” He did just recently receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from his alma mater, Louisiana State University.

I just want to add what you probably already know and have said ... Mose has always paid attention to what is happening in the world, and has always read voraciously both past and present histories. His “involvement” in present history ... politics and the way of the world, has always been keen, and he always speaks through his music. He’s happy to have had and kept an audience.

Audre Mae and Mose met over sixty years ago. Audre has devoted herself to Mose’s musical career, though she has proven herself to be a talented creative writer and teacher in her own right.

For the latest on Mose Allison’s touring schedule, visit his web site at moseallison.com.

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