Profiles in Jazz: Henry “Red” Allen

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Henry “Red” Allen

Jazz history is full of innovators, interpreters and individualists. The innovators change the way that the music is played and influence both their contemporaries and future generations while the interpreters perform the mainstream of the day or earlier styles, contributing fresh ideas to the music. The individualists are unique players who have their own sound and/or style. While they may not be major influences on others, they add to the legacy of jazz through their colorful musical personalities. Henry “Red” Allen was an individualist.

Innovator

The last great trumpeter to emerge from New Orleans in the 1920s and arguably the most advanced of all of them. Allen’s playing remained unpredictable throughout his career. He was mostly heard in Dixieland, trad jazz and swing settings but the trumpeter tended to be more modern than his repertoire and his bands. His playing was quite speechlike and conversational, his phrasing sometimes almost ignored the beat, and he had a wide array of sounds, smears, and growls that sounded unlike anyone else. Allen was also an underrated vocalist who sang a bit like his trumpet playing and was a natural and masterful showman.

Early Years

Henry Allen, Jr., was born on January 7, 1908 in Algiers, Louisiana. His father Henry Allen, Sr., (1877-1952) played trumpet and led one of the top brass bands in New Orleans. Young Allen could not help but grow up around music. Early on he spent time playing drums, ukulele, violin, and alto horn before switching to trumpet. He was always proud when he had the opportunity to march and play with his father’s band, even in later decades. Red (who was given his lifelong nickname as a child) co-led a kid’s group with clarinetist John Casimir. He developed fast and by the early 1920s was one of the most promising trumpeters in the Crescent City. He worked on riverboats with Fate Marable and often performed with clarinetist George Lewis, a lifelong friend.

Heading North

In 1927 when he was 19, Allen went up North to New York to join King Oliver. He made his recording debut with Clarence Williams and made a strong impression but got homesick after a few months and returned to New Orleans. After continuing to develop during another stint with Fate Marable, in 1929 he was ready. Allen was offered two jobs in New York, and he chose Luis Russell over Duke Ellington (where he would have replaced Bubber Miley in a slot soon taken by Cootie Williams) because he had friends from New Orleans who were in Russell’s band.

First Discs

Before he recorded with Luis Russell, Allen used the nucleus of the Russell Orchestra on two sessions of his own, sounding like a mature and fully formed trumpeter on “It Should Be You,” “Biff’ly Blues,” and “Swing Out” rather than a 21-year old. With Russell, Allen became the solo star despite the band also featuring such major players as trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, clarinetist Albert Nicholas, altoist Charlie Holmes, and trumpeter Bill Coleman. Coleman soon left the band when it was apparent that Allen was getting all of the trumpet solos. Such records as “Jersey Lightning,” “Saratoga Shout,” and “Louisiana Swing” are outstanding, swinging hard six years before the swing era began while retaining the joy and feel of New Orleans jazz.

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Recording Partners

In addition to his Russell recordings and his own sessions, during this era Allen also recorded with Fats Waller, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, vaudevillian clarinetist Wilton Crawley, Spike Hughes, Don Redman, Clarence Williams, Jack Bland, Louis Armstrong (as part of the Luis Russell Orchestra), and singers Walter “Fats” Pichon, Victoria Spivey, Sweet Pease Spivey, and Butterbeans & Susie. Best were his sessions in 1932 with Billy Banks’ Rhythmakers that teamed him with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell including explosive versions of “Oh Peter” and “Bugle Call Rag.”

Bands

Red Allen left the declining Luis Russell’s band in 1932. After a few months with Charlie Johnson, he became a key soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra (1933-34) which, next to Ellington’s, was arguably the top big band of the period. Allen’s playing on Coleman Hawkins’ harmonically advanced “Queer Notions” is downright radical and his other solos with Henderson were often so original that Roy Eldridge years later mistakenly claimed that Allen had made “mistakes.” Allen also co-led sessions with Coleman Hawkins that found the two giants constantly challenging each other and he made record dates with Fletcher’s brother Horace Henderson, Don Redman, and trombonist Benny Morton.

When it was obvious that the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra would be breaking up soon, Allen departed and joined the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. He was one of the underrated orchestra’s main soloists for two and a half years, debuting his heated showcase “Ride, Red, Ride. He continued leading his own series of enjoyable record dates and uplifted sessions led by Buster Bailey, Putney Dandridge, Teddy Wilson, Blue Lu Barker, James P. Johnson, Ruby Smith, Rosetta Howard, Trixie Smith, and Putney Dandridge.

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Even with all of this activity, Red Allen was largely unknown to the general public, never getting as famous as Bunny Berigan, Harry James, or Roy Eldridge—much less Louis Armstrong. In early 1937 he rejoined the Luis Russell Orchestra but this was a much different situation than in 1929. The Russell band was saved from breaking up by becoming Louis Armstrong’s backup orchestra. Although Allen was usually well featured in the big band’s opening set at performances, he otherwise was in a purely supportive role behind Armstrong, not getting any solos on records. One could imagine Allen being both well paid and bored.

Revival Begins

In 1940 most of the musicians in the Luis Russell band were laid off as Armstrong reorganized his orchestra. From this point on, Red Allen’s sideman days were almost entirely over. The New Orleans jazz revival was underway and work for the 32-year old trumpeter was plentiful. Earlier that year he had recorded 12 numbers with Jelly Roll Morton. Allen was also a strong asset on sessions with Zutty Singleton, Ida Cox, Sidney Bechet (including “Egyptian Fantasy”), and an Artie Shaw date with strings. But Allen’s nightly job for most of the next quarter century was leading his own freewheeling combo.

Red Allen put together a rambunctious sextet that included trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, clarinetist Edmond Hall, and pianist Kenny Kersey. His band worked for a year at Café Society in New York, followed by four based at the Down Beat in Chicago. During the latter period, the great if now obscure altoist Dan Stovall took Hall’s place.

While at the Down Beat, Allen admired the singing of the female washroom attendant. Her name was Ruth Jones but Allen called her “Dinahmite” when he had her sit in with his band. One night she sang for Lionel Hampton and soon she was Hamp’s new singer and had adapted the name of Dinah Washington.

As a Leader

Having his own band allowed Red Allen to really develop as a showman. He had a unique way of counting off tempos, growling “Whamp, whamp” which could sound especially humorous when he was starting a slow ballad. If Allen liked the performance, he would end it by saying a long drawn-out “Niccccce.” He enjoyed playing pieces at fast tempos, driving the band with his riff-filled trumpet and enthusiastic vocals. By the mid-1940s with the addition of Stovall, his band mixed together not only New Orleans jazz and swing but jump music that was inspired by early r&b. 1946’s “The Crawl” and “Get The Mop” (both of which were among the songs captured on filmed Soundies during the era) featured Allen and his musicians at their most exciting. While Allen largely ignored bebop, he was highly thought of by Dizzy Gillespie and the bop musicians for his adventurous solos, individuality, and ability to always generate excitement on the bandstand.

Things did not slow down for Allen in the 1950s. Allen’s band of the time featured Buster Bailey, Big Chief Russell Moore or Tyree Glenn on trombone, and pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith. In New Orleans he had a recorded reunion with George Lewis in 1951 that resulted in some of the clarinetist’s finest playing. In 1954, he began an 11-year stint as the leader of the house band at the Metropole.

Playing riotous music before a crowd filled with drunks at the Metropole may lead one to have a certain image of Red Allen, whose hound-dog face always seemed to have a smile. However Allen was a teetotaler during much of his life, did not smoke, was a family man (being happily married to Pearly May for 37 years), always seemed to be wearing a suit no matter what the temperature, and was a very consistent performer. He just gave the appearance of someone having such a good time that he must have been partying.

The highpoint of Red Allen’s recordings of the 1950s (which includes some hot playing on a 1955 record by clarinetist Tony Parenti) was the 1957 album I Cover The Waterfront. On the latter he led a band that included Higginbotham, Buster Bailey, and Coleman Hawkins through classic versions of such songs as “I Cover The Waterfront” (which has a particularly expressive Allen solo), “Love Is Just Around The Corner,” “Algiers Bounce,” and “Ride, Red, Ride.” Another album to look for from the era is Dixiecats which has one of the great versions of “High Society.”

Also in 1957, Allen was one of the stars of the legendary Sound Of Jazz television special, leading an all-star group which included Hawkins, Vic Dickenson, Pee Wee Russell, and Rex Stewart on memorable versions of “Wild Man Blues” and “Rosetta.” In addition, Allen appeared on several televised episodes of Art Ford’s Jazz Party in 1958, parts of which can be found on You Tube.

“Latter” Years

In 1959 Red Allen (who was still just 51) toured Europe as a member of Kid Ory’s band, matching surprisingly well with the veteran trombonist and developing a liking for England where he returned several times in the 1960s.

During 1961-65, Allen was often featured at the head of a quartet which very much put the focus on his playing and singing. He never declined as a musician nor lost his enthusiasm. In 1965 his 11-year stint at the Metropole ended but Allen stayed busy. He was teamed at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival with fellow trumpet greats Clark Terry, Rex Stewart, and Dizzy Gillespie and was reported to have stolen the show. The young and adventurous trumpeter Don Ellis, after seeing him play in a club, wrote in a famous article for Downbeat that Allen was “the most avant-garde trumpeter in New York today.” Ellis asked, “What other trumpet player plays such asymmetrical rhythms and manages to make them swing besides?” and “Who else has the amazing variety of tonal colors, bends, smears, half-valve effects, rips, glissandos, flutter-tonguing, all combined with iron chops and complete control of even the softest, most subtle tone production?”

Allen gave one the impression that he had many years left, but shortly after he recorded an album in Oct. 1966 with Pee Wee Russell that used a modern rhythm section (The College Concert), he was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. Even while his health was failing, Allen took a final and triumphant tour of England, performing with trumpeter Alex Welsh’s British band in February and March 1967.

That was Red Allen’s last hurrah. He passed away on April 17, 1967 at the age of 59, having carved out his own place in jazz history. His recordings remain unique, spirited and joyful.


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