Rifftides reader Jim Denham sent a message reminding us that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Henry Red Allen. Allen was the New Orleans veteran whom in the 1960s the iconoclastic young trumpeter Don Ellis famously called “the most avant garde trumpet player in New York.”
Ellis is quoted further in a tribute Mr. Denham posted on a web site with the intriguing name of Shiraz Socialist. Mr. Denham’s piece is well written, historically accurate and worth reading. It incorporates guitarist Jim Douglas’s touching memoir of Allen’s final tour in the UK in 1967. It also links to a video clip of Allen with the Alex Welsh band, playing and singing “St. James Infirmary,” one of his specialties. And it includes a description of Allen’s playing by the poet Philip Larkin. Larkin was a troglodyte in many of his jazz assessments, but not in this one:
There was always something unusual about Allen’s playing: even at the start he tended to sound like Armstrong in a distorting mirror, and by the end of his life an Allen solo was a brooding, gobbling, stretched, telegraphic thing of half notes and quarter-tones, while an Allen vocal sounded like a man with a bad conscience talking in his sleep. (All What Jazz, Faber and Faber) .
To read the Denham article and see the video, click here.
For more of Allen, watch his performance of “Rosetta” from the 1958 CBS program The Sound Of Jazz. His colleagues are Coleman Hawkins, tenor saxophone; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Rex Stewart, cornet; Pee Wee Russell, clarinet; Nat Pierce, piano; Danny Barker, guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; and Jo Jones, drums. Whew.
In 1957, having wrestled my commission from the United States Marine Corps and been given three days’ leave, I traveled from Quantico, Virginia, to New York. I got off the train at Penn Station, grabbed something to eat at a delicatessen, checked into a cheap hotel and walked up Broadway to the Metropole Restaurant. Just as I arrived, a very long Cadillac pulled up to the curb. From the driver’s seat emerged the majestic figure of Red Allen, trumpet case in hand. Inside, his band was waiting. It was the one on this CD, a required item in every basic collection. At the Metropole, the back bar was the bandstand, so narrow that it could accommodate the musicians only if they arrayed themselves shoulder to shoulder along its length. That was true of small groups like Allen’s and of big ones like Woody Herman’s. I stood–at the Metropole, nearly eveyone stood–listening enthralled until the place closed. I walked out just behind Red Allen, who got into his Cadillac parked under a “No Parking” sign and drove off into the night. I’ve always wondered what kind of arrangment he had with the Midtown North Precinct of the NYPD.