Harry Allen: In A Mellow Tone

Jason Crane By

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I knew long before I started playing saxophone that I wanted to play saxophone.
HarryTenor saxophonist Harry Allen was born in Washington, D.C. in 1966, but he grew up in California and Rhode Island. His father was a drummer who played jazz records for Allen before kindergarten, and that early exposure set the course for his professional life. Unlike many saxophonists of his generation, Allen chose not to emulate John Coltrane's sound, choosing a mellower path. The result? Decades of touring the world and recording albums. His latest album is called Hey, Look Me Over (Arbors, 2006). All About Jazz's Jason Crane talked with Harry Allen in December 2006, following Allen's two-night stand with the Bob Sneider quartet at the Strathallan Hotel in Rochester, NY.

All About Jazz: I heard you live for the first time last night, and was surprised by how organically connected to this music you seem to be, and how much obvious joy you take in playing it. Is that your dad's influence?

Harry Allen: I think you're absolutely right on both counts. First of all, my dad started playing records for me when I was very young, so I really grew up listening to this kind of music. I learned to love it so much that when I finally was at an age where I was hanging out with kids who were listening to rock and roll, I heard it and thought, "What the hell is that? That doesn't compare in any way to what I'm hearing at home." So I really did grow up with it.

My dad was a professional drummer. He'd gone into engineering by the time I was born, but he was real big on instilling into my sister and I a love of music and the thought that the music is something special and it should be treated as something special.

AAJ: Many kids reject their parents' music because that's how you establish your own identity. You've done exactly the opposite. You embraced your dad's music and made it your own. Why do think that's what happened?

HA: I was not a very typical kid in a lot of ways. I have a rebellious side in me, but it wasn't against my parents. Maybe some of that had to do with the fact that you don't start to rebel until you're a little older. I was listening to music very, very young. Another strange thing is that I didn't hang out with a lot of friends. Some, but not a lot, because I figured—even back then as a little kid—I figured that if I spent my time practicing, then I'd have more fun later on in life, rather than going out and having fun then and not getting accomplished what I wanted to get accomplished musically.

AAJ: You first took accordion lessons, right?

HA: Yeah. I started playing accordion when a guy knocked on the door selling accordion lessons, believe it or not, when I was 7 years old. That may be another reason why I didn't rebel—I never thought it was pushed on me by my parents. They didn't start the lessons—the guy knocking on the door started the lessons. Then I started playing clarinet at 11 and switched to saxophone at 12.

AAJ: Did your dad have a set of drums in the house when you were growing up?

HA: Yes. He started playing again when my sister and I started playing. But he had drums around. I used to fool around with the drums. He also played a little bit of cornet, so I would fool around with the cornet.

AAJ: When you first picked up a saxophone, were you playing concert band music in the school you were in?

HA: Yeah, but I was already playing jazz on the accordion. It's funny—I knew long before I started playing saxophone that I wanted to play saxophone. My dad said, "You should play clarinet first, because it's easier to switch than if you go the other way." So I did that because it was the right thing to do, but I didn't want to. I wanted to play saxophone. I always wanted to play saxophone. I played concert band music in junior high and high school, but at home it was pretty much all jazz.

AAJ: Did you go to high school in Rhode Island or California?

HA: Rhode Island.

AAJ: By the time you were in high school, did you already know that music was what you wanted to do with your life?

HA: It was either that or baseball. I was a baseball player, and I wanted to do one or the other. By the end of high school, it seemed like I had a better shot making it as a musician than as a baseball player.

AAJ: So you went to Rutgers and studied jazz saxophone, and you got to study with some cool people.

HA: I did. It's funny, but I picked the school for one reason only. I didn't really care who was teaching there, because going to music school was not my main purpose. I thought it was good to get a degree in anything. It's good to have a college degree—it's just a good thing. But I didn't want to go to a music school that was going to keep me busy. If I had gone to Berklee [College of Music in Boston], I know you're in rehearsal bands all day long and you're really busy with the music program. I wanted a music program that would be easy so I could go into New York City and listen to the guys I wanted to hear.

That's what I did. I'd do all my classes, then I'd hop on the train and go to New York. At that time, more so than now—New York still has more music than anywhere else, I think—but at that time, I remember one night I heard [trumpeter] Warren Vache in one club, then walked one block over and heard [trumpeter] Harry "Sweets" Edison, then walked another block over and heard [saxophonist] Phil Woods. So I'd spend my time hanging out and listening to [saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet and [drummer] Buddy Rich and all sorts of people.

AAJ: You were getting your Bachelor's degree during the day and your doctoral degree at night.

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?

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