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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?

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?

HA: Probably. I met the rest of the guys in the band when they popped into a gig I do in New York every Monday with my band at a place called Zuni. So they popped in and I met everybody. But I'm sure that without Phil, they wouldn't have known me.


The Harry Allen - Joe Cohn Quartet: Chuck Riggs, Joe Cohn, Harry Allen, Joel Forbes

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