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JD Allen: Notes of Change

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It is a period of seriousness....It's a radical point in history. There's electricity everywhere and I hope I capture that in my music.
Volant solos, melodic tapestries, mournful cadences, orphic rhythms. J.D. Allen's extraordinary I AM-I AM (Sunnyside, 2008) sculpts an aural monument to transformation, a musical testament to the power of the mind to overcome itself through introspective endeavor. Each of its ten compositions roils with the intensity and exposition of a soul wrestling with its two halves, seeking resolution and enveloping the listener in an experience composed equally of musical mastery, intellect, and spiritual renewal.

More than a culmination of studies, or solidifying of artistic maturity, I AM-I AM resonates with the clarity of an artist who has reached a clear turning point. It is no wonder that Allen's latest work has received a flood of critical attention. Far from new to the jazz world, Detroit native Allen has been a stalwart of the New York scene for more than a decade, lending his astute playing and luxuriant tone control to a string of headline jazz names, from Betty Carter to Cindy Blackman. Despite this success, however, Allen found himself struggling with dark times—both musically and personally. At one point, Allen, living homeless in New York, struggled to stay afloat. By faith, perseverance, and profound dedication to his art, Allen charted a way through and the result reverberates clearly throughout his music.

Allen's story of personal revival and optimism is shared below in the most powerful way possible: his own words.

Chapter Index
  1. Growing Up in Detroit
  2. Personal Transformation
  3. I AM-I AM
  4. Political Change


Growing Up Detroit

All About Jazz: You grew up in Detroit in the eighties, correct?

J.D. Allen: That's right. I was actually born in the part that is usually called 'blackbottom.' On the East Side of Detroit—where most of the blacks from Mississippi migrated when they came up North to find work. My grandfather's family came there. I grew up there.

AAJ: What was Detroit like at that time?

JDA: Whoo! Wow, man. You gotta realize that I came up at an age where I saw the residue of the 1967 riots. So I came up thinking that burnt out, abandoned buildings were a natural thing that occurred in everyone's neighborhood in America. When I got older I realized what had happened. A lot of abandoned buildings, a lot of vacant lots. Cool people. Now, looking back, it was a town that was still trying to really recover. When I got older I realized it was trying to recover from the 1967 riots, that Detroit had changed. Most of the money had left Detroit.

AAJ: Did that time period, that time of transition, influence your early development?

JDA: Well, I knew then that I wanted to get the hell out of there! [Laughs.] I was talking to my sister a few days ago—I have two other younger sisters—and we used to look at pictures of New York in books and my one sister said, "I'm going there 'cause I'm getting out of here" and my other sister said, "I'm going there 'cause I'm getting out of here," and I remember at 19 thinking "I'm going to New York because I like the way the Empire States Building looks." So I had plans back then. I had to get out of there. Not because the people were bad. I don't want to say it was a city of broken dreams, but it was hard to see how you could become something great. Everyone either did something that wasn't cool, or worked for Chrysler.

AAJ: That said, Detroit does have a strong musical character. How did that influence you?

JDA: I realized at an early age, I would say around nine, that my mother had had prospects of becoming a professional singer before she met my father. There were some rumors that she was going to sign with Motown. So [after] I was born—I was the oldest—and dad was out of the picture by then, so she had to work. I think she kind of lived through me and my sister. We would sing these old Motown tunes in three part harmony. I realized there was definitely an R&B tradition at the time, that came before me, and I was learning that through my mom. But I couldn't sing! So I picked up an instrument at nine years old and messed around with it until the age of, oh, I guess I got serious about it at 15. I ran into guys like James Carter, and Ali Jackson, and I said "whoa!" this is a whole other side of music going on here. My family members called it progressive music. We didn't call it jazz; we called it progressive music.

The music, man, it was like there was no genre. I would go to a jam session in Detroit at 15 years old and see a cat stand on stage playing like Albert Ayler, and then turn around and play like Dexter Gordon, and then Charlie Parker, and then Junior Walker. It was like all the styles were one. I thought that was jazz until I got to NY. Then I noticed there were more cliques going on. In Detroit, everybody did everything. R&B. You did it all. If you were sincere about it, people dug it. That was jazz for me.

AAJ: That sounds like something that has carried through to your vision of jazz now.

JDA: I'd like to believe that. It's about the intent. The guys I came up with in the trade really appreciated intent. You can tell if someone is sincere about what they are playing, and then it's cool. They're telling their story. That is how it was for me. I was never around guys who were like, "who could play the fastest, who knows the heads to all the bebop tunes." If a cat could tell his story, we were appreciative of that. It was an outlet against that backdrop of fucked up, burnt out buildings.

AAJ: If Detroit were a piece of music, what would it be?

JDA: You know what it would be? "What's Going On?" by Marvin Gaye. That is Detroit! I'm tellin' ya, that record right there is the soundtrack of Detroit. You get a chance to go through Detroit, put that on. He nailed it.

Detroit is a great town, man. I'm really not trying to dog it. The people are beautiful. It still has a lot of southern qualities about it... as long as you respect the other man, he treats you like a brother. The people still get dressed up on Sunday like you would never believe. I do love Detroit.

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