A Man at Home On the Road—Remembering Mose Allison (1927-2016)
I once asked Mose Allison about whether he considered himself a jazz or a blues musician, since there seemed to be some controversy about that among music experts. He laughed: “Well, I’ve been tryin’ to figure that one out too—good luck!”
If you live, a day will come
If you live, a day will come
When the sun will shine and the crops will grow
And you’ll think that you’re a not gonna worry no mo’
But if you live, your time will come
Your time will come.
—Mose Allison “(If You Live,” from Mose Allison Sings, Prestige PR 7279, 1963)
I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or the Staples Singers or the great blues and jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries.
—Bonnie Raitt (from One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison by Patti Jones, London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1995; back cover)
I got my first call from Mose Allison around 1982 or ‘83. I can’t remember much detail about the call and lost my records about six years later in a fire. But I remember him asking if I was the person who bore my name, which I answered in the affirmative. He then introduced himself and asked if I’d be able to join him at a particular place (which I don’t remember) on a certain date and time (which I don’t remember either). I’m sure I said that I had heard him in 1976 with drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Rich Gerard at the El Matador in San Francisco and I remember that he said George Marsh, one of the great West Coast drum gurus who I had the good fortune of playing with while I was in my teens, gave him my number. When I heard that George recommended me, I accepted the offer without hesitation.
There would be no rehearsal but Mr. Allison (who insisted that I call him “Mose”) assured me he’d bring charts and that I should bring a music stand. He hired a conguero as well (whose name I, of course, don’t remember). I had a few weeks before the date and, because I was familiar with his work, didn’t get as nervous as usual for me in anticipation of working for a new client. I’d first heard “Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy” on the radio when I was in high school (it was a big hit among folks involved in San Francisco’s anti-Vietnam War scene) and I would catch some of his sets when he played The El Matador. I was fascinated by the work of Addison Farmer, the bass-playing twin brother of trumpeter Art Farmer, on Allison’s “Parchman Farm” and “Swingin’ Machine” and spent a lot of time practicing with the radio where Mose’s music made not daily, but frequent, on-air appearances. So I was sure it’d be smooth sailing once we hit the stage. But I had a little trouble getting to the venue, a rustic restaurant/bar that looked like it may have been an inn at one time (and I don’t remember the name of it, either), and showed up fashionably late—with enough time to set up and play, but not much time to talk over the charts Mr. Allison—I mean Mose—wanted me to read.
They were well-calligraphied, accurate, and organized in a leather binder with two, three and even four tunes per page, which were each given a large page number. Instead of calling a tune by name, Mose would call the page number, either out loud or by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, which could look a little odd as the book had over 30 pages. To call the charts “terse” would be an understatement, they were the barest of bare-boned and meant to be read by one person: the bassist (of course, he carried a set of charts for guitar and other transposing instruments when needed; but they, unlike the leather-bound bass book, were kept in manila folders). The bass charts consisted mostly of chord symbols above slash marks, peppered with the notes that were essential to the tune as well as directions about when and how to play them. Mose was considered by many to be a “blues artist” and a large part of his material was blues—which he usually didn’t bother writing out, but rather leaving a space in the stave for directions like: “C-minor (or major) Blues” or “Calypso Blues.”
Mose wasn’t one to insist on how one was to play his music, other than the few indispensable notes in some bass lines and the chord progressions, which were very open to interpretation. But that wasn’t an indicator of a laissez faire attitude towards his own music: he was very particular about certain elements that he wanted to hear. The way he explained these elements to his sidemen, however, challenged some of their basic instincts. When we sat down in the club’s “green room” during the first break, he looked at me, smiled and began explaining to me what he didn’t have time to say before we started:
“When we get into the blowin’ during the blues numbers, go to the flat-six chord before the five, unless the chart states otherwise. And don’t play the third of the chord unless it’s preceded, or followed, by the other third.”
A nice way of saying that I had done the first set almost entirely wrong!
To be sure, I understood the part about going to the flat-six chord: instead of going straight to a G7 (if you’re in the key of C) in the ninth measure of the 12-bar form, you play an A♭7 for a measure and then play G7 in the tenth; it’s a tritone substitute for the minor-two chord (D-minor 7)—pretty basic, but jazzy stuff! But he could tell that I was a little confused about the thirds and elucidated:
“That means that if you play the major third of a chord in your bassline, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the minor third and, conversely, if you play the minor third, it has to be followed by, or preceded with, the major third.”
I’d do my best over the next 30 years to follow that directive, but leaving out thirds for three sets can be tricky. Sometimes, when I made the error, I’d play the “other third” the next time the chord came up. That seemed to resonate with Mose, so I tried separating the thirds by a chorus, which seemed to be okay as well. When I tried to use the major third on one tune and the minor third on another one, however, he let me know it didn’t work. Once, when we were opening for Al Kooper at the Bottom Line, I played a chorus using just roots and fifths, first one, then the other. Mose, who was not one to heap liberal amounts of praise, congratulated me for the first time: “Ratzo, you’ve just inspired me to create a new rule: No alternating between roots and fifths.”
The bass players were in charge of the book during the gig and sometimes had to explain the contents to new drummers—when Mose wasn’t looking. I once booked Mose at a club, Just Jazz, in St. Louis with Mark Wolfley, a fantastic Cincinnati-based percussionist who I met while he was studying at the New England Conservatory. Since I knew he could read music, I offered to share the book on a tune he didn’t know. As I was turning my music stand so that he could see the chart, Mose, who also was a lexicon of off-color aphorisms, leaned into his microphone and declared, “No, don’t do that! Givin’ sheet music to a drummer is like givin’ whiskey to the Indians!” (Of course, Mark’s next drum solo employed a war-dance rhythm as its principle motive.) It would be a mistake, though, to assume that he had no aesthetic rubric to share with his drummers. In an unpublished interview conducted by Marsh, the matter is explored:
GM: How many different drummers would you say you play with in any given year?
MA: Maybe 30 to 40 drummers a year. I play over 200 nights a year. Most of that is scattered all over the country and Europe. Very seldom will I play more than a few days or a week with the same drummer.
GM: What things do you look for when you hire a drummer?
MA: The first thing I ask a drummer is to not play a back beat. No heavy back beat. And I’d just as soon not have the sock on 2 and 4. And I don’t like rim shot patterns where the drummer hits the rim on 2 and 4 or just 4.
For those unfamiliar with jazz or blues, the rhythmic patterns described above are considered the virtual backbone of the genres (the last, hitting the rim on just the fourth beat of the measure, is what happens on “If You Live”). Hearing jazz or blues without these elements is, for many, akin to hearing the music of Beethoven with no major scales. But, in One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, he goes on the record comparing the backbeat to “construction work,” suggesting that: “the backbeat is another form of pollution, bad air.” He once told me that he thought of the genre(s) that featured the abhorrent backbeat as “Le Blues Banal, with the emphasis on Le.” His reasoning was explained to Marsh:
Over the years I’ve come to regard these as “automatic marker” type things and being unnecessary. The concept of the drummer as time keeper is sort of passé anyhow. All the musicians in a jazz band are supposed to be timekeepers…. The drummer should embellish the time while he responds to the soloist. He … isn’t the sole proprietor of the time. For me the whole idea of jazz is for everybody to be swinging with the time. It should release the drummer from that role of a “mechanistic” time keeper who plays only automatic patterns and things. It frees the drummer to do more things. It also frees me so that I can go into different time figures.
I think that it was the “different time” that brought me to my knees on that first night. We opened with an instrumental number called “Promenade.” If you’ve been clicking the links, you heard the stately and relaxed original version from his 1959 Prestige release, Autumn Song with Addison Farmer and drummer Ronnie Free, which bears as much resemblance to what we played as lemonade does to tabasco. Comparing the version of “Swingin Machine” from the second paragraph above with the one preceding this paragraph illustrates their dissimilarities: the latter’s tempo is much faster (and gets even faster) and Allison is fairly free with the form, digging into an open-ended extemporization over the tonic chord until the time seems right and then playing the turn-around back to the tonic. He repeats this ad infinitum and finishes by playing the song’s bridge for the last time. Listen to “Promenade” and notice that, while the chord progression is more involved than in “Swingin’ Machine,” the blowing follows the same idea of playing over one chord until a cue to move on. Mose’s tempo for “Promenade” that night was at least q = 220 (compared to q = 118 in the original). We played it a little slower later, but never as slow as on the recording. It’s a fact that Mose Allison loved to play long solos at break-neck tempos—something that I can find exhilarating as well—but taking my first bass solo after accompanying a 10-minute Mose Allison tour-de-force was … humbling. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened during the opener throughout the rest of the set, which didn’t help with sight-reading his Spartan bass book. It seemed like every time I looked up from the book for help, Mose had a grin that was masking a chortle.
Things went a little better during the set break, after we’d talked about thirds. That discussion included instructions on what kind of bass lines to use on the blues: “Unless the chart says otherwise, you shouldn’t walk” (play one note per quarter-note—another jazz and blues signifier), “try to use something like the calypso [lines suggested in the book].” I prayed that all I had to do was channel Addison Farmer and I’d make it to the parking lot with most of my dignity. What I remember about the second set is that it went pretty much the same as the first, only this time I didn’t get sucker-punched by the opening tune and I knew some of the ones he called (or signed—he would save his best-known stuff for the last set; I assume to keep the die-hards in their seats). In other words, I had no excuses! When it was over he paid me in cash, took the bass book back, said “it was nice working with you” and was gone before I had the instrument in its case. I was sure it was the last time I would get to play with Mose Allison.
Which is exactly how I felt after the second gig with him. It was at Folk City on West 3rd Street in the Village. This time Mose hired Scott Napoli, a deep-swinging drummer who, as the saying goes, “makes it look easy.” He held me together for the two nights we were there. Looking back, I see that my problem was that Mose had evolved as a pianist since he made the recordings I was familiar with from the 1950s. In them you can hear his allegiance to the diatonically-informed post-bop “cool” school, highlighted by long bop-ish lines that displayed an even more confident command of melodic invention than his very capable trumpet playing. By the time I heard Mose at the El Matador, though, he was accessing the style less and, for all intents and purposes, quit playing trumpet (I recently learned that his horn was stolen and he took it as some kind of sign). By the time I got the first call he had pretty much stripped his playing of anything resembling even a hint of bebop cliché. I thought I knew what the singer-pianist Mose Allison played like, but this guy with the white hair—who sorta looked like Mose Allison and sang a lot like Mose Allison—played piano like no one I’d heard before. I started to realize that my strategy of infusing Addison Farmer into my on-the-job audition wasn’t going to help the job of accompanying the pianist Mose Allison (but I still dig Addison Farmer’s playing)! For the rest of the night I would be searching for the bailing-wire to hold together the crack (me) in his swingin’ machine. In retrospect, I know I switched to the right strategy: go with the drummer. I decided to examine how Scott negotiated Mose’s rules with the hope that it might help me imagine an effective strategy to deploy, should he employ me again. (Thank you, Mr. Napoli!)
For the next five years I was absolutely convinced that every gig I played with Mose was the last. I tried calling the bass player who I was ostensibly subbing for, Dennis Irwin, to ask him about his experiences, hoping to get pointers, but he would just start singing the middle verses of Allison’s tunes and the subject would change to something else. I was starting to hear the songs in my sleep because, like most people, I felt like they were written with me in mind. Mose had the ability to expose in the space of a chorus or less, basic truths about daily existence that most of us tend to ignore. He was so good at this that an extremely musically erudite friend whom I had comped into the Iridium Jazz Club to see us was so taken by the prose of Mose that, after he got drunk, he gave me a very nice note, almost a little letter, to pass along saying he needn’t worry, all will get better! For me, the songs “What Do You Do?” became an admission of my own inextricable part in the woes of life and “Hello, Universe” a prayer to the Most Magnificent that, despite all my concerted efforts, things are all right, while “How Much Truth” disclosed the hard evidence they’re not. But then, right after we played at the Bottom Line, where the new rule was invented, he said, “See you on the next one!” I barely knew what to say—and I don’t remember what I said. Maybe it was: “Cool, when will that be?” If so, he probably gave me a general idea of when he planned to be back in town and that he’d call soon to let me know the particulars, which was pretty much how things went for the rest of my tenure.
The Bottom Line was also the first time I accompanied Mose with Tom Whaley on drums. Up to then, and besides from Scott Napoli, he’d used Paul Motian (we’d later record two records with Mose: Gimcracks and Gewgaws and The Earth Wants You) and Jamey Haddad. I met Tom previously, around 1981, in New York City. He was part of the Red Rodney/Ira Sullivan Quintet and our paths crossed in the mix-‘em-and-match-‘em milieu of New York’s jam session network. My new “partner-in-time” had several years of experience working for Mose with Dennis Irwin on bass (they would also record with him) and he knew the book (as much as any drummer was allowed to) forward-and-backward. Tom had already figured out how to negotiate the terrain of Mose’s blues and piano playing, which meant that I could devise accompaniment strategies focused more on interacting with Mose in the moment and less about marking the progress of his charts. From then on it wasn’t about playing the book, now we could get down to making music!
Mose was a guiding light for truth, justice and the jazz life. He was serious, funny, swinging and always—always—himself. He never, in all the time I knew him, changed to please somebody else or to become more commercial. This made him a hero to many (including Van Morrison) who not only loved his hip musical story-telling but also his ethos. He was totally focused on playing the piano and making the 9pm hit each night with as much integrity as possible. He lived for the gigs and for the road. Recording was more or less a necessity, but it was the piano and the music that drove him. An honorable man, down to his socks. We will miss him terribly, but of course, we have his music to help us through these hard times. – Ben Sidran
The reason Mose played with so many drummers per year is that he was in the practice of using “pick-up” bands in the cities he played. It was a common practice, back in the day, for bandleaders to reduce their overhead by “picking up” local musicians, instead of taking a band on the road.
I don’t believe that Mose did this merely to save money. Mose became accustomed to traveling light early, since he was born in an era and area when and where leaders toured their localities with bands whose personnel could easily be replaced. These “territory bands,” although they waned in popularity with the advent of radio and the record player, were the norm. Mose was a jazz man at heart who mostly played with small groups and employed improvisation in his music and improvisers as accompanists. And he preferred his accompanists to not know his book as well as he did. He liked to mix-and-match his sidemen; it added to the uncertainty he craved, an uncertainty that kept the experience of playing the same music 200-plus nights a year as fresh as possible. Having a group of core musicians in key locations throughout the world assured Mose that he could maintain the sense of comradery that was essential in presenting his unique contribution to music, but it could (and never will) replace a regular touring band as quintessential to that end. This becomes obvious when considering how the tradition of jazz club performance in America has evolved (or, if you wish, devolved) over the last sixty years. Gone are the times when a jazz musician might play for several months in one location (the average now is a couple of days with many venues booking several bands in a single evening). The four- and six-week runs that were commonplace in the 1960s became two- and three-weeks long in the ‘70s and the one- and two-week runs of the ‘80s shortened to one week or less in the 1990s and so-on up to now. While this might be a godsend to a senior-class touring musician when it comes to getting one’s rest, it minimizes how much an audience can immerse itself in the artist’s live performance process. The ramifications of this are numerous and profoundly far-reaching, but what is pertinent here is that Mose wasn’t able to develop the same rapport with his bands that he could on the longer nightclub stays.
Mose did what he could to make the best of it. He knew that his repertoire was steeped in the blues, but it was a different kind of blues than the majority of what the culture machine considers “commercially viable.” For one thing, the instruments of choice for the overwhelming majority of blues singers who also play one is the guitar and/or harmonica, not the piano or trumpet. (For a long time, the most prevalent keyboard instrument for blues groups has been the electric organ.) Because the instrument(s) that one chooses to study profoundly influences the kinds of music one learns to play, most of the blues you hear are played in E, A, G and D: keys which lay well on the guitar.
But the home key of the piano is C and for the trumpet: B-flat, so a tune like Richard M. Jones’s “Trouble In Mind,” which was originally presented in the key of E by Bertha “Chippie” Hill and Louis Armstrong (many blues players and so-called “blues players” play it in A, G, and D as well—but, if you’re fact-checking the links, know that many guitar players tune their instruments a half-step lower) is played by Mose in B-flat and F, both very common keys for jazz musicians when playing blues. In One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, Mose gives the impression that he made a study of a wide variety of music, especially if played on the piano. Yet, while he data-mined Scriabin as well as Ellington and Meade Lux Lewis, he never resorted to imitating their styles. Instead, like so many of the jazz musicians he was exposed to (e.g. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, et al.), Mose took what was idiosyncratic about his playing and made it iconic, incorporating the raw materials found in the music he studied into a sound all his own.
As Ben Sidran alluded, artistic integrity was Allison’s bottom line, and he found that playing in jazz clubs with jazz musicians satisfied his (pun intended) standards. For Mose, who lived the first 18 years of his life in rural Mississippi (he was born on his grandparent’s farm), jazz was the music of Duke Ellington and Lester Young and had its roots in the playing of Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and (according to his biography) his personal favorites: Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner. (Mose called his first band the Nat Garner Trio.) But, while the genre blues (often, and I believe mistakenly, called “the blues”) wasn’t as popular nationally as jazz, it was ubiquitous in the area where Mose grew up and he was very (again, according to his biography) familiar with the recordings of Memphis Slim, Tampa Red, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five, and Roosevelt Sykes.
I was lucky to be Mose Allison’s “regular” bassist living in what could eventually be called his hometown, New York City. (Mose lived on Long Island for most of the time I worked for him.) I was over at his home a couple of times and got to know his wife Audre and two of his kids, John and Amy. We played regularly at Iridium, The Jazz Standard and, while it was open, Fat Tuesdays in Manhattan. We did a stint or two at The Blue Note, Visiones (before it closed) and Jazz at Lincoln Center (before it moved to Columbus Circle). These were top-line venues for jazz in Manhattan and usually packed with fans (although when Fat Tuesdays started to go under, we played a few empty nights) ranging from curious tourists to the royalty of rock.
I look at my stint with Mose as having two stages. The first was when I was a hardcore drinker and the second was after I stopped imbibing altogether. As I stated before, there was a point early on when I thought certain tunes he performed were written with me in mind. One of them, Johnny Fuller’s “Fool’s Paradise,” kept me on something resembling the straight-and-narrow while I removed alcohol consumption from my daily routine, which included relocating to Indianapolis, Indiana from 1990-93. While there, I commuted back to New York to play Mose’s jobs there and booked two Midwest mini-tours for him. The first, in 1991, included two days in at the Blue Wisp in Cincinatti, The Place to Start in Indianapolis, Bear’s Place in Bloomington, and Just Jazz at the Hotel Majestic in St. Louis (where I tried to share the book with the drummer). The second, in 1993, included drummer Stan Gage, who worked with Mose in New York before Tom Whaley. We returned to Cincinatti and St. Louis, but the venue in Indianapolis closed (we were actually the last act to play there; now the room is called The Jazz Kitchen), so we played at a theater, The Vogue, and finished the tour at The Tuba Club in Kansas City. The last was an eye-opener for me: not only did the audience talk the whole time we performed, but at one point a customer sitting close to the stage lit a cigar and blew smoke at Mose while he was singing. That incident was one of the (many) deciding factors in my decision to move back to New York.
But working with Mose away from home was also inspiring. He and his wife drove out from New York to Cincinnati for the first date (and acted like they were on theirs). She took their car to visit family somewhere not horribly far away while he rode with me for the rest of the tour, flying back to New York from St. Louis. I learned something about levels of knowledge, attaining or not attaining them, and a lot about booking tours. (After the 1993 tour I began writing a song I’m prepared to never finish: “Don’t Hire Your Boss.”) After returning to New York I continued working with Mose, but I never tried to book him again. Instead, I passed along recommendations and contact information for new venues—my days as a booking agent were done. There was an incident, though, that forever changed my views about American music that should be related here. In looking for local support for the first tour, I approached the Indianapolis Jazz Society. They informed me that they considered Mose a blues musician and rejected my advances, suggesting that I go to the Indianapolis Blues Society instead. I asked around for information about that organization and was directed to the local radio station, WFYI-FM, where I should talk to Jay Zochowski, a champion of Indianapolis-based bluesman Yank Rachell and the on-air-host of the blues program, Nothin’ But the Blues (and where I hosted a show, Jazz Focus, throughout 1992), who agreed to interview Mose the day of our appearance at The Place to Start. But Mose was tired from the drive from Cincinnati and said I should do the interview instead. I checked with Jay and he agreed. During the interview, he inquired if we’d be playing Parchman Farm and, fortunately, I had already asked Mose about this because it was one of his biggest hits, but we never played it. When I asked him why this was he began with another aphorism:
It’s like givin’ matches to children. The Parchman Farm is the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a maximum security correctional facility. If you go there and ask, the inmates all claim that they’re innocent. Each stanza of the song is one of their excuses for bein’ there—the last one goes: “I’m gonna be here for the rest of my life / an’ all I did was shoot my wife.” As I went around the country singin’ it, people would come up and tell me how they could sympathize with me! Turns out there’s a lot of people who are into that, so I don’t play it no more.
For the next tour I approached the Indianapolis Blues Society to help underwrite the night at The Vogue and Zochowski was the person to talk to that year. He explained that, as far as the Society was concerned, Mose wasn’t a real blues musician so they couldn’t lend support. However, Lady Luck appeared in the guise of an Indianapolis jazz fan, Mary Rose Niemi, who generously stepped up to the plate to cover the event. I thought we’d sell enough tickets to pay her back and recover some traveling expenses, but we had an empty house. Zochowski gave us no mention on his show, and the jazz community wasn’t much help either. The Vogue doesn’t even include the date in its roster! I was bellied-up until we got to St. Louis. On our way to St. Louis, I asked him about whether he considered himself a jazz or a blues musician, since there seemed to be some controversy about that among music experts. He laughed: “Well, I’ve been tryin’ to figure that one out, too—good luck!”
I still resided in Indianapolis when we recorded The Earth Wants You, but the session convened over three days at Paul Wickliffe’s Skyline Studios in New York City. Wickliffe pretty much let the artists “do their thing,” mostly listening for glaring errors and watching the clock, but our producer, Ben Sidran, ran a very different ship. A pianist-singer-songwriter (among his many hats) whose work is highly informed by Allison’s, Sidran was involved from the project’s inception and planned well for the date. He and Mose presented thirteen tunes in four different settings: piano and bass with (1) drums and three horns; (2) drums and guitar; (3) drums and harmonica; and (4) congas and guitar. The first day was dedicated to recording Mose’s horn charts: Bob Malach (as noted earlier) on tenor saxophone with Joe Lovano on alto and Randy Brecker on trumpet. I had a bit of down time while the horns rehearsed their parts and spent it mostly drinking coffee and hanging out. On one trip back from the coffee machine I detoured into the control room. Ben was talking with a lean, dark-haired fellow who he introduced as Jon Paris, a harmonica player checking out the music for date’s final gathering. I believe, and the discography in Jones’s biography agrees, that this is Mose’s only studio recording with harmonica (there may be others recorded after One Man’s Blues was published, but I couldn’t find any). We exchanged pleasantries until it was time to record. On the second day, we recorded with John Scofield on guitar and Ray Mantilla on congas for half the session and Motian on drums for the other half. On the third day, I came in expecting to see Paris, but was introduced to a fellow named Hugh McCracken who, I was told, played guitar on a lot of sessions and “doubled on harmonica a little.” One of my shortcomings is names and bios and I had no idea who McCracken was. It wasn’t until I attended his memorial that I learned that he had a reputation for being non-punctual, showing on occasion as much as a day or two late. I surmised that this was why Sidran, anticipating a potential problem, had Paris there: as backup! The long and the short is that McCracken played great, the session went really well, despite the decision to use the recording studio world’s tightrope-without-a-net method of recording direct to two-tracks, so everything was done “live” without overdubs. I found a place to sublease in November, drove back to Indianapolis and packed my bags.
As usual, The Earth Wants You wasn’t a huge commercial success, but some of the tunes resonated inside the music community, especially “Children of the Future,” that couches an anti-war theme as an apology to children who come from “mixed” (aren’t they all?) partners from groups who are killing each other. Many are the times I’ve found myself accompanying someone on it. My favorite is the title track. It advances the blatant truth of “If You Live,” but with fresh rhetoric; it’s the blatant truths Allison exposed in his words that attracted me to his music in the first place. But don’t think he would fink on himself after cutting down a cherry tree, many are also the times I heard Mose say that he was proud of the song; but, when pressed for why, he would usually and deadpanly deliver: “It took me three months to find the name of a village in Vietnam that would rhyme with ‘done you wrong’.”
Mose grasped the obvious: that we are all victims of circumstances of some kind, but he was blessed with an ability to understand what those circumstances really are and cursed with the need to identify them in words. Despite his borderline nihilistic leanings, Mose acted with the knowledge that most of us are trying to do the best we can with whatever we have, even if that isn’t much. He set his moral compass to treat everyone with an even-keeled application of “do-unto-others-as-you-have-them-do-unto-you.” Although I was proud of our work on The Earth Wants You, I was not so proud of how the last Midwest tour worked out. I began to feel, once again, like the Swingin’ Machine may have swung shut, even though I was back in New York. But Mose kept calling with things to do.
For the most part I was available, but sometimes a prior commitment would require sending a sub, usually Mark Helias or Ron McClure. Even so, I was surprised when, in late 2000, Mose called me to do another record date with him. When he called with the particulars he disclosed that this would be his first self-produced, or mostly self-produced, recording project. Knowing that he was more in-control of this project than was his norm was a profound honor for me. Paul Motian would, again, be on drums, but this time the “guest” forces were reduced to two: Mark Shim on tenor saxophone and Russell Malone on guitar. And he gave me the introduction to the title track “Gimcracks and Gewgaws,” a 14-bar blues with no IV chord. Mose’s wordplay, like his humor, is subtle on this tune and reaches beyond the lyrics as he “drops” a beat at the end of his solo and returns to singing with: “Well, I guess I dropped it on the floor.” This was the first album Mose recorded since the publication of One Man’s Blues and could be said to represent a new chapter for him. Besides taking a more direct part in the financial affairs of the project, he presents new original compositions, except for “Somebody Gonna Have to Move” and records two “oldies,” W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and Russ Morgan’s “So Tired.” The material is presented by quartets: piano, bass, drums and either saxophone or guitar. The one exception is his solo performance of “Old Man Blues,” a reworking of “Young Man’s Blues,” which The Who turned into a rock ‘n’ roll classic. The new lyrics tell a bitter downside of the situation Mose humorously addressed in “Certified Senior Citizen”: how growing old changes one’s relationship with society. Of course, he supplies the underlying reason: “The young man knows how to wheel and deal / The young man’s got that sex appeal / The young man is the man of the hour / Thirty Five years of purchasing power.” We recorded two ballads that impressed me mightily: “Texanna,” a lament to the grandmother he never met for reasons he’ll never know and the masterpiece, “Numbers On Paper.” While I don’t believe that Mose wrote anything with me in mind, I have a similar relationship with my grandfather that he describes in “Texanna” (he was estranged from his wife long before I was born, and the only person who knew him, my grandmother, wouldn’t talk about him). But what is impressive is how well Allison tells the whole story without need for programmatic explanations (like the one supplied here); with a fearless application of words that his audience may not understand: “You were taken from your baby child / But he grew into that same profile / Just a lonely photograph / Of my mystery distaff.” But “Numbers On Paper” is nothing less than an examination of the single most dehumanizing thing a society does to its citizenry: apply numbers to them. He opens the song by reminding his listener that, at first, we almost gleefully accept the process while at the end, he suggests that in the end, we’ve lost our identity because of it. He uses a bittersweet tone that had become more apparent in his conversation. About a year after Gimcracks and Gewgaws was released we were talking during a set break and politics reared its ugly, yet popular, head. I proffered my opinion: “it seems like these guys read 1984 and told each other, “hey, we can DO this.” Mose kind of smiled and offhandedly, “yeah, but who would-a thought they’d make it fashionable! And Mose, who was a fashion unto himself, was no fan of it! That was something clearly stated in “Who’s In, Who’s Out” from The Earth Wants You.
Mose memorized his book and composed in his head. He would work on tunes over long stretches of time, sometimes years, and keep it all straight in his memory. So I was a little surprised when he started to mess up his lyrics. (This link contains another coincidence that shakes my core a bit and I’d like to share: the bassist, Kelly Sill, is playing the bass I used on my first gig with Mose!) At first, he would just repeat a verse, which isn’t that strange; it happens a lot more than most artists would like to admit. But there came a time when he called a number and would start a tune from a different page. I knew the book well enough to roll with that, but then he brought in a tune, “My Brain,” and I knew something was afoot. He had gone on record saying that his tunes pretty much conveyed everything he wanted to pass on to his public.
One of the last times I played with him was a tribute that Elvis Costello and Amy Allison had put together at the City Winery. Mose and I played at the end of the concert. We got through it without any incidents worth mentioning and he conveyed his borderline nihilist philosophy to great applause. He brought his lyrics along as a safeguard, but he didn’t need them. But throughout 2012, his condition worsened and he retired from the stage. My last conversation with him was later that year to congratulate him on being named an NEA Jazz Master. I told him that it was a great thing that he was finally being recognized for his contributions to American Music. He intimated that he guessed they finally figured out how to get him to play for free. I laughed. I told him that if he needed an extra testimonial, I’d be happy to supply one. He laughed (I talk a lot worse than I write). I think that we knew that we’d never play together again. I would bump into his daughter Amy on the streets of New York and offer to come out and hang, play some, but I never heard back about it. I think that he had no interest in watching his sidemen try to convince him that everything was cool with the music, being with his family was enough.
When I look back at the great bassists Mose Allison used on his records: Taylor LaFarge, Addison Farmer, Bill Crow, Aaron Bell, Henry Grimes, Ben Tucker, Stan Gilbert, Earl May, Red Mitchell, John Williams, Bob Cranshaw, Chuck Rainey, Clyde Flowers, Jack Hanna, Putter Smith, Jack Bruce, Dennis Irwin, Bill Huntington, Tom Rutley, Roy Babbington, and Bill Douglas—I feel more humbled than when I did on my first encounter with him; so many of them are legend to my craft. The list doesn’t include the non-recording bassists, the ones he would call to join him for a week or two per year in their hometowns: Kelly Sill, Mel Graves, Rick Kilburn, Ron McClure, Kelly Roberti, Charlie Haden. We all met a guy whose words were prophecy and whose piano playing was so special that it rang in your head for weeks, months, years. We were part of Mose’s “60 years of on-the-job training” and knew that we were better players for the experience. We accompanied and created music for a man who was, for the industry we’re proud to be part of, uncategorizable. I, honestly, haven’t played a blues of any kind for 30 years without thinking about Mose Allison. I guess, if I ever do, it will be time for me to retire as well.
I want to thank: Ben Sidran for the citation that is included in this remembrance; Tom Whaley for spending hours on the phone helping me get my timeline straight, Bill Goodwin for putting me in touch with Tom and talking about Mose’s directions to drummers; George Marsh for sharing his interview; Amy Allison for loaning me her copy of One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, and for taking the time to talk to me about him when he no longer did; and finally John Allison whose remembrance of his father I’ve included below in its entirety.
A few Words about My Dad, Mose Allison
By John Allison
I often get the question, what was Mose like at home? My answer to that is, the man you see performing and the man you hear singing those lyrics, that is the man he is was at home. My dad had no hobbies, did not golf, did not play tennis, and did not spend money on a single hobby that I can recall. He spent his time listening to music of all sorts, the stranger the better, he did some yoga stretching in the morning and some Tai Chi that sometimes embarrassed us kids when we had company over. He liked to run at the track in his younger days, then switched to swimming and actually had a schedule of high and low tides for the Long Island Sound; the beach was just a couple miles from home. Other than that, in his free time he liked to cook and read books, many books. He made lists of “to read” books on small pieces of paper. Mose read esoteric type books with content about the cosmos, the Human Brain, books with titles like, The Fabric of Reality, A Field Guide to the Invisible and The Nature of the Universe. And yes, he did play the piano at home, but he only played repetitive hypnotic runs to keep his mind sharp and his fingers limber.
Mose was one of the least material persons I have ever known. He was not one to ever be seen shopping with the exception of grocery shopping. His entire wardrobe took up 5 feet of space in his closet, most clothing purchases being made by my mom. He called me long distance one time to tell me his luggage was missing and in his luggage contained his only belt. He described the belt to me in detail, hoping I could assist him in finding an exact replacement. I also recall the time my mom replaced our 20 year old couch with a new one. My dad’s space in the den was at one end of this old couch. The new couch was placed in the den and the old couch was placed in our foyer by the door awaiting a ride to the local Thrift store. When I walked in the door, dad was sitting on the old couch at his usual space at the end of the old couch reading his book. Mose eventually warmed to the new couch.
My dad never had much of a record collection. I started buying records when I was 9 years old. I could play a song over 40 times and each time feel a sense of elation. Dad was different, he listened to a song once and it made a connection in his brain, like a mathematical equation, and that was all he needed, that one time. That to me is very strange. To this day I have many favorite songs I still play over and over. With dad, one listen was all it took.
About receiving awards, I know Mose always has appreciated praise but never let it get to his head. He did not believe in the show off, look at me, I’m great, attitudes that run so prevalent through the entertainment world. I was with him in Sedona AZ when he received a beautiful Lifetime Achievement Award, he smiled and thanked those responsible then handed the award to me and said, “I am not carrying that on the plane.” When I asked him why he did not want to go to the Grammy Awards after he was nominated, he replied, “I don’t believe in renting shoes.” In reality he may have already been booked at a small club in Des Moines, OH, and Mose, after 65 years of what he called, “On the Job Training,” never missed a single gig.
Mose preferred the setting and intimacy of a jazz club and that is where he really earned a living. The record companies all tried to cash in and make Mose a commercial success. Mose wanted nothing to do with backup girl singers and A&R men arrangements. He wanted to sing his songs his way at the places he liked best. Atlantic tried to get him to Muscle Shoals, Mose declined. Burger King offered him a huge payday for one day’s work. He told me, “I ain’t singing about no hamburger.” Mom was not happy.
I knew a club owner and promoter that told me, “After 35 years of promoting shows, Mose was the only performer to ever to give me money back.” The promoter had paid Mose but lost money on the show. Dad gave him some money back, why? Because Mose was also interested in keeping his club going so he could keep coming back to play.
In 1989 I accepted a Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame award on his behalf. Mose had a gig somewhere else that date so dad wrote a little something for me to read to the crowd after accepting his award. It read:
Ten years before Elvis got to Beale Street Mose had already been there, getting Zoot suits made for him and performing on keyboards with the BB King Orchestra at Mitchell’s Hotel, a blacks only club in 1947. Dad told me years ago that he first heard rock’ n roll on Beale Street in 1942 from the band Tuff Green and the Rockettes. Mose also remembered hearing a matinee solo performance at the Orpheum Theater by harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson that made a huge impression on him.
One of my favorites from his Grammy-nominated album on Blue Note Records, Ever Since The World Ended, is titled “Top Forty.” This song to me represents the way my dad looked at the business of the recording industry.
When my dad passed, he was comfortable and with family. We each got to kiss him, tell him we love him and that it was OK to let go, go home. So he did. No one gets out alive. Dad was 89 and his was a life well-lived. I only feel very fortunate and grateful to have had such a cool dad. I get to ride the turnrows of Mississippi and listen to Mose and I can do that till the day I “go home.”
Finally, a reporter once asked Dad, “You were socially relevant before Dylan, satirical before Newman and rude before Jagger, how come you are not a big star?” Dad simply and honestly replied, “Just lucky I guess.”