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Harry Allen: In A Mellow Tone

By Published: January 23, 2007
HA: Right. In fact, that's how my career got started, sitting in with people. Then I started to get work. By the end of college, I almost dropped out, just because I was busy enough working and it was tough getting up in the morning to go to class. I had to be talked into staying.

AAJ: The sax teachers when you were at Rutgers included Sahib Shihab from [bassist] Charles Mingus's band.

HA: [Saxophonists] Sahib Shihab, Bob Mintzer, Horace Young III and Mark Kirk. We had a different one every year.

AAJ: When did you graduate?

HA: I graduated in 1988.

AAJ: Is there a [bassist] Major Holley connection to your first recording?

HA: Actually, my first recording came through [pianist] Kenny Barron, who was the piano instructor at Rutgers. He got me on as the saxophone on a record he was doing with a singer named Bobby Norris. But I had met Major Holley when I was in high school. He was very nice and very supportive. He let me sit in with him.

AAJ: How did you meet him?

HA: At the Newport Jazz Festival. I played a couple of years at the Newport Jazz Festival with an all-star high school band. We opened the festival. It was great. I got to see [singer] Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich's band, [saxophonist] Zoot Sims, the [drummer] Mel Lewis Vanguard Orchestra, all sorts of great people. So I met Major there and also [drummer] Oliver Jackson. Major hired me for some of my earliest gigs, and then Oliver Jackson took me on the road and toured all around Europe with me several times.

AAJ: And this is when you were what age?

HA: Oliver waited until I was out of college. He was a stickler for that. He said, "You've got to finish school." So he waited until I was out of college and then took me on the road. It was a great experience from several points of view. First of all, he wanted to teach me about the music business and being on the road. He was great at knowing how to travel. He was great musically, too. He taught me all sorts about what to do. "When the singer gets on the stage, put out your hand and help her on the stage." All those little things you don't think about. "Why are you standing there? Don't stand there, you're blocking the bassist."

His main intent was to teach me and to introduce me to promoters. Everywhere we played, he'd have the promoter come over and he'd say, "I want you to remember this name, you're going to want him." Even today, 20 years later, 90% of my work in Europe can be directly traced to those early tours with Oliver Jackson.

AAJ: Why do you think he took such an interest in you?

HA: He was just that sort of guy. He liked taking young musicians who he thought had what it took. He didn't do it just with me—he did it with the flautist Ali Ryerson and [drummer] Ali Jackson, who was his nephew. He was just a real good guy.

AAJ: What did you think of that first road experience? Was it what you had imagined?

HA: It was great. One tour we did was two and a half months long, all around Europe. One time we took a train from Vienna to Paris to Calais, where you take the ferry over to England, and then the train from the coast of England to London. It took 29 hours. We got to see all sorts of great things, play in castles—it was really neat.

AAJ: What size band were you traveling with?

HA: It was trumpet, saxophone, guitar, piano, bass and drums.

AAJ: Do you remember who was in the band?

HA: The trumpet player was Johnny Coles.

AAJ: So you had two Mingus connections.

HA: Dicky Thompson was the guitarist, Claude Black played piano, Pierre Boussaguet played bass.

AAJ: When you came back from that trip, what happened next?

HA: I just continued to try to work in New York. I was really fortunate that a lot of people helped me out. [Guitarist] Bucky Pizzarelli helped me out a great deal, and [guitarist/vocalist] John Pizzarelli. I was working a lot with John Pizzarelli, who was a few years older than me but not that much older.

AAJ: He was still emerging.

HA: Yeah. We were doing a lot of weddings and parties. In fact, somebody came up to me here last night [in Rochester, NY] and said they saw me at Ryan's in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1984, playing with John Pizzarelli. That's how I met John Pizzarelli—he was playing in a club a block away from my dormitory.

So I was just around New York, trying to work as much as I could. Bucky Pizzarelli brought me down and had me play a couple tunes at a rehearsal with [clarinetist] Benny Goodman. [Saxophonist] Scott Hamilton let me sit in wherever he was playing.

AAJ: Last night, the band you played with here in Rochester included bassist Phil Flanagan, who played and recorded with Scott Hamilton. I assume you two had met before?

HA: Absolutely.

AAJ: Is that how you ended up playing here in Rochester?

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