Monday, 2 September 2013

17. Henry “Red” Allen

Flushed with early success
Born in New Orleans in 1908, by the early 1920s, Red Allen was playing with the Excelsior Brass Band as well as with Sam Morgan’s band and George Lewis’ band. He earned his nickname because of the colour that his cheeks took on when he played high notes.

Chicago to New York
 After a spell on the Mississippi river boats, he was recruited by Joe Oliver to join him in Chicago in 1927. His talents were noticed by former Joe Oliver pianist Luis Russell, who was then fronting one of the most successful bands in New York. Russell’s band used several former Joe Oliver sidemen, including the formidable, bellow-lunged trombone player, Jay C. Higginbotham. At first Red travelled to New York to guest on Luis Russell recordings, but soon he had joined the band full time.

 Here’s Red propelling the Luis Russell number, Dr Blues. But listen out for Jay C. Higginbotham’s trombone solo, not that you’ll miss it!

As well as having an inherent sense of swing, Red was from the start a player willing to take risks. Avant-garde trumpeter, Don Ellis, hailed Red as “the most creative and avant-garde trumpeter playing in New York”. This was in the mid-60s, only two years before Red’s death, at the height of the New Thing (famously described by Time magazine as that “curious and compelling cacophony”). Red wasn’t pandering to new tastes; it’s just that the new players could dig Red’s famous unpredictability. His playing had always been full of the unexpected: what Ian Carr et al describe as his “’modern style’, all slurs, atonal twists and growls”. (Jazz: the essential companion, P7).

 Here’s the Russell band’s Jersey Lightning:

Pops Foster solos on bass from around one minute in, but after that – from about 1:23 - we hear Red’s incredible solo, full of notes that aren’t even in the key being played, never mind the chord. The tune is full of chromaticism, but Red occasionally goes further than that, into pure atonality. His solo wouldn't sound out of place on a Charles Mingus album 30 years later.

 Red was to be a huge influence on later trumpet players, like Roy Eldridge. We’ll hear more of him in later decades, but we couldn’t leave the 20s without a mention for the man once called the last great New Orleans trumpet soloist.

 Here he is on a side recorded under his own name in 1929, Swing Out:

Red on CD:
 You can hear Red on Luis Russell records as well as under his own name in the late 20s. Morton and Cook recommend Luis Russell’s the Luis Russell Story, on Retrieval. It’s well worth getting. As well as Red and the wonderful Jay C. Higginbotham, you’ll hear old hands such as Kid Ory, Johnny St Cyr and Pops Foster, as well as Albert Nicholas on reeds.

Under Red’s name, Morton and Cook recommend Henry “Red” Allen and his Orchestra 1929 – 1933, on Classics.

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