It's almost 8:00 at night as I write this but I had to post an emergency blog after finding out that today, January 7th is Red Allen's centennial birthday! I learned the news from Doug Ramsey's always excellent Rifftides blog and his entry for today not only includes a nice eulogy, but also a YouTube video of Red leading a band on the historic 1957 Sound of Jazz telecast, as well as another link to a beautiful Allen tribute by Jim Denham. Click here to go to Doug's page, then follow the links and have a ball.
If you're a jazz fan and you're not acquainted with Henry "Red" Allen, you should be ashamed, but don't worry, it's not your fault. He came up in the shadow of Louis Armstrong and really, that's a pretty tough star to eclipse and though he had a successful career, Allen couldn't break into the suuperstar echelon. The same thing happened to another of my favorites, Hot Lips Page and he, too, is also similarly forgotten, too, but not if my good friend Todd Weeks has anything to do with that; check out his lecture on Lips at the Institute of Jazz Studies on January 23. Anyway, I digress...when Red first came up, he did a pretty credible job of sounding like Armstrong. How credible? Listen to "I Ain't Got Nobody" from 1930 where the two trumpet players trade eights and it's tough to tell whose who. Click here to listen.
Soon enough, though, Allen demonstrated that he was his own man, with a sense of rhythm and harmony that was way too ahead of its time to be fully respected. One of the best lines ever written about Allen comes from Richard Sudhalter, who said, "The 'wrong' notes his colleagues sometimes derided had a way of turning up years or decades later, hailed as brilliant discoveries when someone else played them."
Allen was a mainstay in Luis Russell's Orchestra and he later played with, Fletcher Henderson the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and Armstrong's late 1930's big band, too. Fortunately, he was well recorded in the 1930s, appearing on small group sessions led by the likes of Lionel Hampton, Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday, in addition to leading many fine small band sessions of his own. I urge you to seek out these records, though they're increasingly difficult to find (paging Mosaic Records!). The Collector's Classic label did the best job and if you can find any of their six volume Allen series, grab 'em.
Fortunately, we do have the Red Hot Jazz Archive, so here are the links to a bunch of my favorite Allen songs (though not all...please listen to his 1935 "Body and Soul" right now!). Allen's first session as a leader, done for Victor in the summer of 1929, is a classic and all four tracks deserve examination. Here they are:
It Should Be You
A few months later, Red took part in a pickup date with a Fats Waller led small group featuring the likes of Jack Teagarden, Pops Foster and Gene Krupa. Disregard the singing of The Four Wanderers and listen to red tear apart Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad.
The Luis Russell band was one of the great big bands of all time and for me, their rhythm section laid the blueprint for all future swinging jazz rhythm sections. Allen was always well featured and here are some of my favorites:
The New Call Of The Freaks
In September 1930, Armstrong's mentor King Oliver called on Allen to play trumpet on a record date. Oliver's chops were in failing shape and he began to play less and less on his recordings. On "Stingaree Blues," Oliver actually plays a muted chorus but the main event is Allen's two final choruses. Listen here.
In 1932, Allen took part in perhaps the hottest series of records ever made, those under the banner of The Rhythmakers. Unfortunately, the Red Hot Jazz Archive doesn't house "Bugle Call Rag," which is positively smoking, but everything this all-star studio group record is legendary. Here's the entire session from July 26, 1932, featuring vocals by Billy Banks and a band that included Pee Wee Russell on tenor saxophone, Eddie Condon, Pops Foster, Zutty Singleton and some remarkable Fats Waller piano solos.
I Would Do Anything For You
Mean Old Bed Bug Blues
Yellow Dog Blues
Allen joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra in 1932 and immediately formed a partnership with tenor saxophone titan Coleman Hawkins. Here's a YouTube video that features the tandem of Allen and Hawkins swinging "Jamaica Shout."
Meanwhile, with Henderson, Allen turned in many some breathtaking solos. Here's Red stretching out on King Porter Stomp and here he is at his most "modern" on Queer Notions.
Unfortunately, there's almost nothing of Red's to share from the late 30s and that's my favorite period of his. However, here is a very fine "Canal Street" blues from 1940 that features Allen's frequent partner, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham (how haven't I mentioned him until now???) and future Armstrong associate Edmond Hall.
By the early 40s, Red was ready to go out on his own and for the rest of his life, he would lead various small groups, usually with Higginbotham by his side. Here’s a video of them playing “The House On 52nd Street” from a 1946 short film:
On that track, you can here some of Allen’s delightful vocalizing. He was a born showman, which turned off the younger generation and no doubt has led to his being something of an outcast to today’s younger jazz fans. He was a natural leader for jam session environments and though everyone seems to know his work on The Sound of Jazz, here’s a wonderful clip of him playing “Rosetta” from an Art Ford Jazz Show in 1958. The includes Higgy, Buster Bailey, Hal “Cornbread” Singer, Willie “The Lion Smith, Matty Matlock, Cliff Leeman, Vinnie Burke and others. Red at his finest, with a supremely relaxed solo beginning at the 5:27 mark:
Quick sidebar: in 1957, Allen recorded “Ride Red Ride In Hi-Fi,” his greatest album. It was issued on C.D. as “World On A String” and is available for download. If Red only recorded the versions of “I Cover the Waterfront,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Algiers Stomp” from this album, he’d be an immortal. Please check it out if you don’t own this music.
In 1959, Red joined forces with Kid Ory for two wonderful Verve albums and a successful tour of Europe (there’s a great Storyville disc of a Denmark show). Fortunately, footage exists from this partnership, so let’s enjoy the group blowing the hell out of “Tiger Rag,” with former All Star Bob McCracken on clarinet:
On an erratic 1959 television special, “Chicago and All That Jazz,” Red and Ory were joined by a gang of Armstrong associates: Johnny St. Cyr, Zutty Singleton, Buster Bailey, Milt Hinton and even Armstrong’s second wife, Lil Hardin. They play Jelly Roll Morton’s “Original Jelly Roll Blues” and the highlight is the beatuiful opening to Red’s solo:
In the 1960s, Allen continued playing at the Metropole in New York City as well as touring the United States and Europe. In England, Allen did some of his finest latter-day work with Alex Welsh’s jazz band. There’s a C.D. on the Jazzology label with some of Allen’s final performances but a televised show with Welsh from 1964 features some of my all-time favorite moments. I can never get enough of this version of “St. James Infirmiry.” If you don’t find yourself yelling, “Oh yeah,” check your pulse.
Allen died on April 17, 1967 at the age of 60. The ensuing years haven’t been very kind to Red, but his music is still out there if you search for it and once you do, you’ll be a fan for life. And please check out John Chilton’s excellent biography Red Ride Ride for more information. It’s 10:51 now so technically I can still post this on Red’s centennial but then again, I can celebrate Red Allen’s music every day of the year.
Quick note: one of my best Armstrong-related friends is the marvelous trumpet player from Boston, Dave Whitney. We correspond about Louis quite frequently and Dave has been most gracious in filling some of the holes in my Armstrong collection (and like me, he loves Louie Prima and The Three Stooges…take that, snobs!). Dave wrote to remind me about two releases that I really should have included in my All Stars primer yesterday. First off is Disney Songs The Satchmo Way, which I seriously don’t know how I forgot. It’s a great starting point because it allows Armstrong to take familiar Disney standards that everyone knows and “Satchurate” them into some pretty wonderful performances. It’s late in the game, but “When You Wish Upon A Star” might be Armstrong’s most moving performance and his trumpet sounds quite daring on “Chim Chim Cheree.” Also, I listed Live in Berlin as a toss-off towards the end of my blog because Armstrong did some tremendous blowing on that 1965 tour but Dave thankfully reminded me that there’s a disc out there, Royal Garden Blues, that contains just the Armstrong features from a slightly earlier concert in Prague. Me and Dave mention this 1965 tour almost every time we speak because of the power of Pops’s chops and this disc, available on Itunes, features some freakishly powerful playing from a 63-year-old man. Thanks to Dave for those recommendations and please if anyone out there has any more or if you’d like to share your thoughts on Red Allen, leave me a comment!