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JD Allen: Notes of Change

By Published: July 15, 2008
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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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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