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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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Personal Transformation

AAJ: You got started playing professionally by 17, 18 years old. And since then you've spent a long time playing as a sideman in a lot of amazing bands. But recently the tide seems to have turned, with a lot of attention on your trio and yourself as a leader. What accounts for that surge in your career?

JDA: When I took matters into my own hands. Meaning, that I decided to really put into the forefront some of the ideas that I had to play. After being with different people all those years—it was a university for me—it was time to make my own statement. It felt right. I felt mature enough to do it: personally, spiritually, and as far as musically on the horn, I felt confident to my self out there. It's like in the Bible "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, understood like a child, and thought like a child. But now that I am a man, I put childish things away." That's a model for me now.

AAJ: I understand that during those early years, though, you went through some rough spots, musically and personally. What do you think was the lowest point, where you thought, "Man, I'm in trouble." And how did you turn the corner to get out?

JDA: The lowest point. Man, my whole twenties. [Laughs.] But I think everybody says that. Everyone is dancing in the dark in their twenties.

I'm thirty-five now. Thirty-one, thirty-two was my low point. That is when I said "Wow, wait a minute." I started hanging out with the wrong crowd. Not to judge them, but I couldn't take care of business. I was doing unmusical things that were affecting my music—and personal life. Man, to be honest with you, the last resort for me was—I had left NY so many times in my twenties—I decided OK look, I'm going to be in New York, I'm gonna be homeless, but I'm gonna be in New York and still gonna try and achieve what I want to achieve.

At one point I really was homeless. I still practiced everyday, but I was homeless. I dealt with that. I'm grateful for the experience. Just being out there like that, I pulled myself together. I started praying and going to church, reading the Bible; and telling myself positive things to change around my thinking.

That's the difference now. Whenever a negative thought comes, I fight back with something positive. And it seems to work. It really changed me. I've immersed myself in positivity instead of negativity. That can mean drinking, or doing these things that so-called musicians do, which actually has nothing to do with music. Trying to be cool, getting into the "in crowd." It was a big mistake, but I pulled through. And I think I came out of it with a few stories to tell that I am anxious to record.

AAJ: Was there anything—or anyone—that gave you the sign that you needed to make this turn?

JDA: It was either lock myself up in Bellevue or... (Long pause.) Man, I really got low. I didn't see...any light. I think intelligent people are capable of change. If you are a smart person you can change and I like to think that I am a smart person. [Laughs.] I said, "I may be low, but I'm not dumb." My father told me, if you can read, you can do anything. That's the best advice he ever gave me. Man, I read up on positivity. In the Bible. Immersing myself in the other side of life. That really, really made a difference.

At one point, I was selling scarves on the street. On 32nd Street. And I was actually becoming a business man. I was a business man in training. And I said, "Wait a minute, I'm up there selling these scarves, making money, but I could be hustling my own music. The same intensity that I'm out here hustling on the street, I could have the same mentality towards my music, getting it heard, being a leader."

That [whole] experience woke me up to life.

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I AM-I AM

AAJ: I want to turn to your most recent album, I AM-I AM, which seems to express some of that transition. You chose a trio format-with no piano. As a leader and a player, what do you gain from that choice?

JDA: Trio for me has always been an urban sound. It's very urban to me. If you go into an urban neighborhood—I think almost any urban neighborhood in America and I can bet you in Europe as well—when you see a young cat, a young brother, and he's blasting that music, the one thing you always here is that damn bass and drums. [Chuckles.] All the time! I feel that thing also. Something about the bass and drums, those beats, it sounds more African to me. More about rhythm. The trio format in jazz lets me be closer to rhythm and change on the fly. For some reason whenever you have a pianist, the minute he hits that chord it is dated. It sounds like you've heard it before. It sounds like Herbie, or bebop. But when you don't hear those chords, especially on the piano, you're able to change and play all types of genres and that is closer to the way I grew up playing. I'm more comfortable with the trio.

AAJ: You've got a tight relationship with your trio mates. Not getting into the technical aspects—describing it to non-musicians—what do you like about their playing?

JDA: I like the fact that we communicate. Meaning, it feels like to me that it's not a guy trying to play a great solo or tear the house down. It's three individuals having a conversation. It's a three way conversation. I inject an idea and Rudy [Royston], the drummer—answers me. And Gregg [August] puts his idea out and we answer him. It's a three ring circus. Really it is. That's how we are. We're working on new music where we can express that even more through group improvisations. You can do that with a trio. I can do that with these guys. I am very fond of them. Man, they'll play for me if it's a five dollar gig, or a five thousand dollar gig. It don't matter to them. I'm very blessed to have met these guys.

AAJ: The album has a real thematic consistency to it. Not necessarily musically, like a suite, but a thread that ties the ten pieces together.

JDA: You are right.... Recently, I've been trying to edit the tunes to tell one story. It's hard to explain! It's better if I talk [through] the record.

"I AM-I AM" is what Moses asked God, "What do I tell your people?" That's 3.14 I believe. And God says, "I am what I am." That is the first tune. The second is "North Star" the brightest star in the sky. Some identify that with God as well. "Hajile" is Elijah backwards. Elijah ascended into the heavens and is supposed to come back. If you take the first tune and apply it [to the album], you can say "I am the North Star, I am Elijah, I am Titus," etc. Titus was the only gentile in the bible to have his own book. Titles are very important to me.

AAJ: They are very provocative philosophically and religiously. It is clear from what you have already said that this is a deliberate choice to guide the listener with the titles, whereas for many the titles sometimes seem irrelevant.

JDA: I know one cat who came up with the title "Milk and Cookies." I kid you not.

AAJ: The titles also identify many figures of leadership and strength. "Titus," also a Roman emperor. "Othello," obviously a figure of strength and suffering. "Ezekiel," who is important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

JDA: If you wait, actually, after the tenth track—after "Pagan," there is a ghost tune titled "John Brown."

AAJ: As a package, I AM-I AM opens with a theme very reminiscent of Coltrane's later work. Coltrane's musical journey really paralleled his spiritual journey. Is there a similarity in this album in how it reflects the musical and spiritual journey you have gone through?

JDA: I think his journey and life have influenced a lot of people and I won't lie. He has definitely been an inspiration to me. But his spiritual journey is actually nothing new at all. Bach had a spiritual journey. Just listen to Bach. The cello suites, or any of the arias. It's something more than notes there. Beethoven had a spiritual journey. The great composers and musicians—in Africa, in India—we all have a spiritual journey. It's our job to impart some kind of spirit to people. Now, whether that it is good or bad...?

I recognize that I have a place in life to help somebody. Even giving this interview might help someone. Someone might read it that is going through something, and I hope it can give them inspiration just like reading about Coltrane's drug addiction helped me make it out of some situations.

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Political Change

AAJ: Moving outside of the album and music specifically, you mentioned already Detroit going through a transition period. "Change" is a powerful word of the moment right now. What does change mean to you?

JDA: Right now, in the political context, I think it's a moment where black Americans, especially black American men, can finally say, "I have no excuse for not becoming the best that I can be." I feel we are putting to rest the blame—and rightfully so sometimes—but the blame of saying I can't do it because the man got me down. I am just so proud of Barak Obama and what he is doing. He is an example of how to [succeed] in the world in a way that includes everyone.

It's amazing what is happening. It's hard to put in words. It is easier to put into music. I am so happy to be living now, because the music and the art that is going to happen now is going to be fucking amazing!

Even five years ago you never would have asked me that question about politics in an article! And I am elated that you asked me that.

AAJ: Do you think Obama really represents a dramatic change for African-Americans?

JDA: I think because of what Obama is doing, it's the first time in this country where we can all say that we are all American. This is the first time—you can look at an Obama convention and see people of all colors and hues coming together for the common good of everybody... I am so happy. It is good to hear hope in the air.

AAJ: You sound optimistic.

JDA: I am. I am. I can now understand why we went through the seven years of turmoil with the current president we have now. Because out of that has come this hope.

We are seeing history being made. I'll tell you how into it I got, I volunteered. I got on a 25 dollar Chinese bus and rode down to Philadelphia to go door to door to say vote for Obama. And I was so proud to do it because I had my little part in history.



AAJ: Coming back to the album, there are examples there of great leaders. It sounds like you believe we are in a period where we have a great leader.

JDA: I believe so. I feel that we are in that period. It is a period of seriousness. Even in the music. Whereas in the '90s it was about smooth edges and craftsmanship, now people want it to hang out a little more. When you go to a museum and see the African art, the sharp angles the pointed lines. The music is more about that now. It's a radical point in history. There's electricity everywhere and I hope I capture that in my music.

AAJ: There are so many issues that are coming to a head right now.

JDA: It is very radical. Not being political for political's sake, but I think we as musicians can express that and want to express that—and the people are hungry for it.

AAJ: Music has always has always been a part of those kinds of transitional moments in history. You can go through any period of radical change and find that people needed the music and used it as a tool.

JDA: I am sure there is a shift in all art...I am sure there is something going on everywhere because it is in the air. There is something happening, and I want to be a part of that.

Selected Discography

JD Allen, I AM-I AM (Sunnyside, 2008)

Gerald Cleaver, Gerald Cleaver's Detroit (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2008)

Cindy Blackman, Music for the New Millenium (Sacred Sound, 2004)

Orrin Evans, Easy Now (Criss Cross, 2005)

JD Allen, Pharoah's Children (Criss Cross, 2002)

Russell Gunn, Blue on the D.L. (High Note, 2002)

Duane Eubanks, Second Take (TCB, 2001)

JD Allen, In Search Of... (Red, 1999)

Winard Harper, Winard (Savant, 1999)

Bob Belden, Shades of Blue (Blue Note, 1994)

Photo Credit

Frank Stewart

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