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Mose Allison: Substance and Style

R.J. DeLuke By

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The music of Mose Allison, the slick hipster from the Mississippi delta, never fails to get at least a wry, knowing smile from listeners, if not outright laughter—on CD or live in a nightclub.

Those that know his work—and that audience is growing, he says—are attracted to his simple, bluesy style as well as his witty, observational way with a lyric. He has a warm, deep tone that doesn't have a lot of range, but don't worry about it. It's meant for story telling, not arias. It invites you in. Pull up a chair.

Is it jazz, blues, country blues, folksy jazz?

Who cares? Maybe it's all of that.

Some in the industry have an obsessive need to know exactly what box a product must be squeezed into. They spend time sweating such things. But the issue doesn't concern Mose Allison, who's been doing what he does for half a century now.

"People have been tryin' to do that [categorize him] for years. I have no idea what I'm doin.' I've never seen me," he says good-naturedly.

So how DO you describe his style?

"I wouldn't," he says with a warm Southern chortle.

But he can push the jester in him aside.

"I just have a lot off different influences. I'm just tryin' to play jazz, which is improvised music, and I'm tryin' to write the songs that I write and they express a certain point of view, a certain temperament.

"I just try to do as good job with the material as I can and play some jazz as well, some improvised music, and do that every night. Just see where it goes."

Not a bad gig for someone who'll be 74 this fall.

If you only knew
what can happen to a man for tellin' the truth
If you only knew
All the scruples that go down in gin and vermouth


Mose Allison isn't anywhere near a wild man on the loose or primate on the prowl. Nor is he a natural born malcontent. He's unassuming; even self-effacing. He's a southern gentleman, who still maintains a gentle drawl even though he makes his home on New York's Long Island. He's calm and jovial at the same time.

"I'm playin' the music I like. I'm playin' music for a certain type of person. Fortunately, there are more and more of us. At least there are more comin' to see me than there were 30 years ago or so."

It's true that despite the up and down cycles jazz goes through, Mose continues to play, record, work steadily.

The New Yorker has called him a national treasure and British bluesman John Mayall once said everyone he knows in England was raised on his music. Legions of other musicians—like Bonnie Raitt, Peter Townshend, Van Morrison (dig his album of all-Mose material)—sing his praises.

All that from a man who was once given a rather dim vision of the future by his childhood piano teacher.

"The idea was I'd never amount to anything in music," he says. "The theme there was that I was talented, but I wouldn't work hard enough to do anything with it."

More irony there than in a Mose Allison lyric. Well—close, anyway. Not only is he known as a fine pianist, but he's called a cynic, satirist, even sage for his musings about the world around him and the people in it. His songs often strike a familiar chord, some shrouded with an ironic twist and others cutting right to the chase in particularly wry fashion.

And when it comes to interpreting his songs, everyone should lighten up, this Mississippi bard contends.

I've been doin' some thinkin'
'bout the nature of the universe.
Found out things are gettin' better.
It's people that are gettin' worse


"These people that think I'm cynical, I wish they'd come to see my shows these days because I've turned into a comedian, practically," he says, chuckling. "I get laughs all the time now. The songs they used to think were cynical, now they're laughin' at 'em, which is what was intended in the first place. The cynical thing was just a superficial appraisal. They didn't really get it.

"There's a few tunes of mine that don't have jokes, but most of them have a joke and they have a humorous point of view somewhere," he says. "You got to laugh. What else can you do?"

"There's an American poet, Kenneth Pachen, that I like a lot," Mose adds. "He had a phrase that he used: 'Halleluiah, anyhow.' That's kind of my philosophy. There's a lot of terrible things goin' on all the time, but you gotta try and have some fun in the end."

And fun is just what he has, through the hard work it takes traveling from place to place and trying to put on a quality performance each night. He brings with him a disarming sense of humor. And while some artists play for a long time before they hit a stride or find that direction they were meant to pursue, Mose had his humor and his singing way back when.

"I sang and wrote songs when I was 12 years old. I wrote a song called 'The 14-Day Palmolive Plan' when I was about 13, and I used to play it at parties all over the place. It was about radio commercials. That was the first song I remember writing. I wrote some others about that time," says Mose.

"I've heard some tunes in recent years that were pretty close to that same idea. The idea was you turn on the radio and you want to hear some music and up comes a commercial."

He also says he comes by the humor naturally.

"I think it's genetic. I'm readin' a lot of books about neuroscience and all that and sociobiology. It turns out, it looks like, at the moment, they think just about everything is wired in. It can be changed. Your culture and your upbringing has some effect on how you are, but a lot of it is just wired in to start with."

"In the part of the country I grew up in, and at the time, during the Great Depression and everything, that sort of molded my point of view. In the Mississippi Delta, nobody says anything straight out. Everything is exaggerated or understated and there's a lot of humorous sayings and all that. So I was introduced to all that early."

So there are those that call him part philosopher (he did study it at LSU), but when it comes to assembling the lyrics that eventually make us laugh, don't picture Mose Allison locked up in a room sweating

Lock up you wife and hide your daughter
Let's do things we shouldn't oughta


"I never sit down and write. I just sorta let things form in my brain. I'm always storing away phrases and ideas and things that I think might turn into songs. I'll go for months without doing anything and all of a sudden I'll decide to work on somthin' for some reason. Maybe it's been reintroduced to my mind about somethin' that's happened or somethin' like that.

"It's not systematic, for sure. People ask me, 'Do you go sit down and write all the time?' I've never done that. It always happens just mentally. I don't do anythin' further than that until I get the song pretty much shaped up in my head, then I go to the piano and start messin' with it."

No. Not a bad gig at all. Fifty years and going strong.

"I started workin' in 1950. Lake Charles, Louisiana, was my first 6-night gig. So I'm in my 51st year of playin' mostly nightclubs. I do some concerts," says Mose.

Though he bemoans the shortage of good jazz clubs, "I manage to stay pretty busy, regardless. I work a lot of different types of rooms. They're not all jazz rooms. I can work different things. I've been able to do pretty well. I don't work as many consecutive nights as I used to, but I'm still working over 100 nights a year, so that's good for me.

"It's as much fun as it ever was, you know, once I get there. Gettin' there is a little harder. Traveling these days has a lot of problems and also it wears you out more."

Don't you talk to me about life's problems
or how you wish that things could be.
I don't have trouble livin'
It's dyin' that bothers me


Traveling may wear him out more in his seventh decade, but it was the rule as a youngster when he went from the Mississippi Delta to the west and southwest in little combos. "A friend of mine had a club in Jackson, Mississippi. I went in there with a quartet and stayed there for a while. I figured as long as I can play and make a living, I would do that. If I can't do that, I'll worry about it and try and figure somthin' else out.

"Fortunately, I had a bassist, Taylor LaFargue, who had a car and was willing to go wherever there was a gig. We knew different drummers, so we just drove from town to town. Tried to get a job and worked somewhere as long as it held up. That went on until about '56 when I moved to New York. I finally decided if I was going to make a living, I was gonna have to come to New York.

"The jazz boom was goin' on then so there was a lot happenin' in New York at that time. It was real excitin,'" he recalls. There was the usual slow start, weekend jobs, spotty gigs, until reputation and work grew.

All the while, singing was part of the act.

"My main influences have always been the classic jazz players who sang, like Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole and Jack Teagarden. Louis Jordan, I always liked him as well. The thing of playin' and singin' never bothered me," Mose says. "I just thought they went together."

In 1957, his Back Country Suite on Prestige Records hit it big, and just about everything he has recoded since has had critical acclaim and solid core audience. His resume includes working with jazz greats like Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Gerry Mulligan

So whether it's jazz or blues or both, it's Mose. Unmistakably Mose.

"I read a recent interview with [venerable octogenarian jazz artist] Jay McShann. One of his lines was: 'I always thought blues and jazz went together.' That knocked me out because that's the way I started out. All the classic jazz players all sang and a lot of 'em sang blues," he says.

Mose developed a unique and personal way with a song, whether it's his own or someone else's.
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