“Ever since the world ended, I don’t go out as much.” – Mose Allison.
Mose Allison won’t be going out as much as his world ended on Nov.15 at his Hilton Head, S.C. home, just four days past his 89th birthday. I don’t mean to strike a facetious tone or make light of his death with the above quote. While not unexpected – he’d slowed down considerably in the past few years – his passing came as a personal blow because I’d worked with him quite a lot; I liked and respected him a great deal. There’s some comfort in that he left behind a legacy of some 40 records and of course his many songs, both of which guarantee his art will live on. All in all, he had a very good run, touring extensively for 50 years without a regular working band. As he often said in interviews, “I’m in my –th year of on-the-job training.”
He was able to do this for so long because, although his on-stage persona and songs could seem fanciful, he was not: he was very disciplined and practical, he took care of himself. He didn’t smoke or drink – maybe the odd beer at the end of a night – and never gained a pound, eating sparingly and wisely. Mostly he drank herbal tea with honey for his voice and his only vice, if you can call it that, was a moderate fondness for marijuana. But never much of that either – as he said once, “I only need a little poke, ’cause I’m workin’ on a 50-year ‘contact-high'”.
His decision to tour as a single was partly financial – keeping a working band on the road is expensive – but mostly musical. He liked the spontaneity and challenge of working with different bassists and drummers in various cities, it kept things fresh. His m.o. was to keep an ever-growing book of players’ names and phone numbers and often he’d ask a bass player to book a suitable drummer, or vice-versa.
Once on this list, a player could expect a call from Mose a few months in advance, which went something like this: “Hey Steve, it’s Mose, how you been keepin’? I’m callin’ to see if you can do a job with me in May for a week. Yeah? – great. And get me a drummer you like to play with, you know…..somebody good, you know how my stuff goes.”
It was often that casual, he enjoyed the give-and-take looseness of working like this. Part of it was that he shouldered a large part of the musical load himself, but he also didn’t like it if things got too slick. For example, after working with him a few times I began to hone in on musical details – little rhythmic shots or chord sequences that weren’t written down – which I’d dutifully play with him. He was okay with this up to a point, but if things seemed too worked out he’d deliberately toss a small wrench into the works, offsetting a figure or leaving it out altogether. And then his eyes would sparkle and he’d flash an “I got ya” grin. He liked to keep things loose.
It was through this makeshift grapevine that I first came to work with Mose in early 1979, at the Rising Sun in Montreal. I was all of 22 and it was either January or February because I remember the city was absolutely freezing, as bitterly cold as I’ve ever felt. Drummer Pete Magadini, who was from San Francisco and had spent some time in Phoenix before settling in Toronto in the mid-’70s, hired me for the gig. He was renowned for his very light, polyrhythmic approach to drumming and his prowess as a teacher of such methods. He’d worked with Mose many times and after we’d done some playing together and established a rapport, Pete asked me if I’d like to do a week with Mose in Montreal. I was pretty green at the time; I knew of Mose but hadn’t heard much of him, so I may have seemed a little reluctant. Pete would have none of it though, saying “C’mon Steve, do it. You’ll have a ball, Mose’s feel is just the best.” So I said yes and Pete recommended a number of Mose’s records to at least get an idea of his unique conception. I bought one on Atlantic called I BEEN DOIN’ SOME THINKIN’, with Red Mitchell on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums.
So I was only slightly prepared as Pete and I took a train to Montreal and went straight to the club for a rehearsal. Mose produced a sturdy leather satchel known as “The Dead Sea Scrolls” which, when unclasped, opened out into a three-ring binder with the bass book on numbered pages which were so old that the paper was frayed and worn thin like papyrus. I was relieved to see that detailed sight-reading would be minimal: they were mostly chord charts written in bold magic marker, with the odd rhythmic figure written out or suggested bass patterns penciled in on the margins. There was never any music for the drums and this gig with Pete was the only time I worked with Mose and a drummer who had played with him before; it helped immensely.
The rehearsal and first set of opening night went well, but on the second set I experienced an extra-musical “adverse event” which I won’t go into here because it has no real place in this piece. Let’s just say that I got through it and it probably made Mose remember me more than he might have otherwise. By the end of the week my feet were more than wet and I was hooked on Mose and his music, his singular sound. He took down my name and number and said he’d be calling me the next time he came to Toronto.
And he did, often asking me to hire a drummer for weeks in various clubs or a concert here and there. I experienced the schadenfreude of watching drummers working with Mose for the first time as he explained to them in mystifying terms what he wanted on a lot of his tunes: no backbeat, very little hi-hat, and a loose feel somewhere between Latin and swing which he cryptically called “pan-rhythmic”. “Just keep your eyes on me and your ears open and we’ll be fahn.” Their eyes often widened, but all became clear within a set or two. Mostly what Mose wanted was a good jazz drummer, but one with an open mind and more than one way of playing time; regardless of the ‘feel’ he was playing in, it always swung. If you look back over his records, he established an infectious rhythmic rapport with an amazing variety of good drummers: Ronnie Free, Frank Isola, Nick Stabulas, Jerry Segal, Osie Johnson, Paul Motian, Frankie Dunlop, Bill Goodwin, Ron Lundberg, Jerry Granelli, John Vidacovich, and many others.
It occurred to me while writing this that I only heard Mose live once, and it came long after I’d started working with him. My friend Angie Heale (a.k.a. the “Curl Caresser”) and I were visiting New Orleans in the spring of 1994 and noticed Mose was playing at Snug Harbor with a superb local band so we went one night. After a set I went over and said hi to Mose, who was somewhat surprised to see me so far from home. I asked if I could sit in and he answered that it was fine with him but he’d have to ask the bass player. He returned with a rueful but knowing grin, it was a no-go. “No offense, but these boys down heah are pretty territorial” was how he put it. So for many years I experienced Mose live only through playing with him, which meant I didn’t get the audience perspective but had the best seat in the house, mere feet away. As a result, his words and the sounds he made sunk deep into my ears, deep into my bones.
To the extent that, for years now, I’ll be walking down the street and suddenly hear – and often sing – snippets from his songs, such as, “Hurry up boy, bri-ing that water, don’t do things you shouldn’t oughta.”
Or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and hear the classic final verse of words he added to Duke Ellington’s “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues – “lyrics by Bob Russell, except fo’ the last voise, which is mahn: “Ain’t got no house in Westchester, don’t have no Chris-Craft to cruise. Sold all my Basie with Lester…. I ain’t got nothin’ but the blu-oo-ues.”
And this will lead me to remember the time we were driving back from a Sunday night concert in Peterborough and John Sumner played a cassette that started with Lester Young’s immortal 1936 solo on “Shoe Shine Boy”. “Oo-wee boy, listen to Pres” said Mose,“nobody ever played better than that. Let’s hear it again.”
Or I’ll be standing in line to buy some wine at the LCBO and I’ll suddenly hear Mose singing, “Drinkin’ and a-gamblin’, stayin’ out a-aall night, I’m just livin’ in a fool’s paradise…”. It’s a bit like being haunted by the ghost of Big Bill Broonzy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There was never any chance that I wouldn’t like Mose Allison and his music, because his artistry comprised so many things that I love. Starting with the blues in its many shades, from Robert Lockwood and Tampa Red to Willie Dixon and Charles Brown and everyone in between; the sheer unchanging and human poetry of it. And other forms of rural and Southern music – country and honky-tonk, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers and Leadbelly.
And Southern writers like William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, James Agee, Harper Lee and many others, they reverberate in Mose’s words and sensibility. Several obituary pieces mentioned that Mose was often referred to as “the William Faulkner of jazz”, which is somewhat fitting as they were both wordsmiths from Mississippi. But there’s one problem with this parallel – William Faulkner was many things but rarely if ever funny, whereas Mose often was – Mark Twain would be more suitable. Like Twain, Mose’s humour was not ha-ha funny so much as wry, ironic and satirical, with gusts toward the sardonic – “a mother lookin’ at her teenage daughter…. just another lamb for the slaughter.” Or the lines which open this piece, in which Mose raises the very real spectre of nuclear holocaust while also mocking the hand-wringing doomsayers by making light of their fears, closing with, “It’s just as well the world ended, ’cause it wasn’t workin’ anyway.”
I was also drawn to Mose because of my susceptibility to the sound of various accents – Irish, Brooklyn, English, and especially Southern ones. Mose’s speaking voice was as irresistible as his singing one – not at all cracker, but soft and refined, with a slow Mississippi drawl that drew out vowels so that “my” sounded like “mah” and “five” sounded like “fahhv”. It lent everything he said a kind of down-home charm and humour; I could listen to him talk forever, though he was fairly taciturn. He often came up with funny things such as his contraction of the “space-time continuum” into “spime”, which from his mouth sounded like “spaahm”.
Along with those from his Southern backwoods roots, Mose had other wide-ranging musical interests and tastes – the Nat King Cole Trio (an early influence), Duke Ellington and Count Basie, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Al Haig was his favourite jazz pianist and one can hear him in Allison’s late-’50s work as a sideman with Stan Getz and the Al Cohn/Zoot Sims quintet, before his singing-songwriting career took off.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Mose loved sophisticated composers who wrote very personal avant-garde music which reflected their immediate environs – men like Bela Bartok (Magyar peasant folk influence), Charles Ives (the bands of small New England towns) and Thelonious Monk (the streets of Manhattan) – and so do I. I’m not suggesting Mose was in their league as a composer, he wasn’t. As a composer/songwriter he was essentially a sketch artist, though a very shrewd and observant one. But the influence of the above men and others showed particularly in the later development of his piano playing, an oft-neglected but essential aspect of his musicianship.
His piano work naturally took a back seat to his singing-songwriting, but was quite remarkable both in his accompaniment of his singing and as a soloist. He had a lot of technique and a bewilderingly kaleidoscopic piano style which incorporated both the primitive and the sophisticated: swirling, circular lines, often bi-tonal and played in double octaves, crashing bass chords, crinkly blues phrases and clusters, all with a joyously percussive attack. Not everybody liked it but his piano playing was, like Monk’s, both messy and exhilarating all at once.
A typical Mose set began with a couple of long improvised workouts on instrumental tunes of his such as “Powerhouse”, “Saritha”, “Promenade” and others. These were loosely structured, often consisting of a very rhythmic theme with a chord structure and a tempo. They lent themselves to adventurous and open-ended improvising, which he encouraged by example. These allowed him to warm up at the piano while cutting down on the wear and tear on his voice and allowing the bassist and drummer a chance to cut loose, which there wasn’t much room for on the vocal portion of the set. Between these blowing vehicles and the vocal tunes was an improvised rubato section which I came to think of as the “shimmering grotto interlude”, consisting of a ringing series of “keep them guessing” suspended chords with thrumming tremolo octaves in the right hand. I never quite knew what the hell he was doing here and did my best to follow along by ear, but nevertheless I always enjoyed this. I never heard anything quite like it from anybody else, the undulating chord-sounds had a prayer-like, incantatory quality which built suspense and anticipation. Then, at some moment known only to him, he would signal the vocal tunes were coming by leaning in off-mic and saying, “page fahv at the top” and off we’d go with something like “If you’d be so kind, as to help me find my mind….. I wanna thank you in advance. Know this before we start, my soul’s been torn apart, I lost mah mind in a wild romance.”
You had to concentrate, but his vocals were a joy to play behind for so many reasons. His time was marvelous and there was such a deep call and response on so many levels – between his voice and the piano, or between his left and right hands, which interacted with the drums and bass. And the songs: so many songs that the sets were never the same or boring, with the gradual revelation of the wonderful words washing over you as you played. Often not gleaning the meanings till later, with a smile.
Mose was constantly refreshing his repertoire by writing new songs over the course of his whole career, but he also delighted in playing other people’s. Old standards like “Indian Summer” and “When My Dreamboat Comes Home”. Blues songs by Richard M. Jones (“Trouble In Mind”) or Willie Dixon (“The Seventh Son” and “I Love the Life I Live”) or blues-based ones like Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You”. A nod to Nat King Cole with “Meet Me At No Special Place (and I’ll Be There At No Particular Time”), which contained the killer line “Baby, you and I can get along, I’m never right, you’re never wrong”. Or Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin'”, a number of Ellington songs and several by Tennessee songwriter Robert Loudermilk, such as “You Call It Joggin’, I Call It Runnin’ Around”.
And above all, Mose’s brilliant and daringly original take on “You Are My Sunshine”, which he always announced as “this is a song written by the formah Govenah of Louisiana, Mistah Jimma Davis; howevah, this is not his vershun.” Mose took it a dead-slow crawl and translated it into minor, creating an entirely new song with devastating effect. Hearing “you’ll never know dear, just how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away” delivered so slowly in a minor setting was dark and haunting, it always moved me beyond words. Between these and his own ingeniously wry songs, it was like taking a bath in some mysterious creek of below-the Mason-Dixon-line poetry both age-old and modern, one which I couldn’t resist.
Among jazz artists, Mose had a unique standing in the rock ‘n’ roll world, as his blues-based songs were covered far more often by rock artists from America and the U.K. than by jazz figures. His signature blues about the notorious Georgia work-prison, “Parchman Farm”, (“I’ll be here for the rest of my life, and all I did was shoot my wife”) was recorded by many, including John Mayall and Canned Heat. The Who had something of a hit with his “Young Man Blues”, indeed many to this day think they wrote it. Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt recorded several of his songs, and Georgie Fame described him as “more important than Bob Dylan.” Van Morrison was perhaps foremost in his admiration and championing of Mose’s music; in 1996, Mose, Morrison and Fame recorded a collection of Allison’s songs on Verve called TELL ME SOMETHING, THE SONGS OF MOSE ALLISON.
I witnessed Mose’s participation in this rock love-in when I played two concerts with him opening for Van Morrison on several tours. The first of these took place at Massey Hall and was a serio-comic demonstration of how thankless a task serving as an opening act can be. We came out on stage and were ignored at best by the throng of “Van the Man” fans who were still taking their seats and completely mystified about just who this old guy with the southern accent and white hair was, or what his music could possibly be about. Mose was pretty philosophical about this – it was a gig after all – but Morrison, God bless him, was not. When he came out to an ovation, he lambasted his fans in no uncertain terms for dissing a musical legend who was one of his idols.
The second such concert was at the outdoor stage at Canada’s Wonderland and brought into focus another thing Mose and I had in common: a hatred of the ritually idiotic sound check. We sat around as the sound guys endlessly e.q.-ed the “kick drum”, which drew some typically acerbic lines from Mose: “It ain’t a kick drum, it’s a bass drum, and it’s the least musical sound on the bandstand so naturally these morons spend an hour gettin’ it just right – loud enough to kill us. It’s the old, old story, boys, breakin’ up rocks on a chain gang.”
When they finally came to the unimportant stuff like the piano and vocal sound, Mose entertained us with his sound-check tune, set to “Mr. Sandman” – “Mister soundman, give me some sound, give me some juice so I can cut loose. Tweak them dials and twiddle them knobs, turn on this here mic so I can sing me some blues. Mister soundman…..”
Mose said several times that “junkies and rock ‘n’ rollers make the best records”, and in both cases his reasoning was the same: neither gave a damn. The jazz junkies were too high to worry, and the rockers had enough money to afford spending weeks in the studio to get beyond any anxiety. To Mose, the idea of making a good record was to relax and say something powerful and personal for posterity. It can be done in three hours or in two months, but it can’t be done if you’re all nervous worrying about the microphone. As with many of his observations there was more than a little truth in this.
Mose was genuinely grateful for this attention from the rock world and the boost to his royalties, but always considered himself a jazz artist first and foremost. He told me he thought of jazz as feeling, thought and action happening simultaneously in performance, and he delighted in this as the ultimate process of spontaneous musical creation.
As someone who grew up a white Southerner, Mose also held a unique position vis something which inevitably crops up in jazz: the issue of race. More than once I observed knowledgeable American black musicians hearing Mose for the first time and assuming he was black, only to discover with some shock that he was white as snow. Often in interviews or articles he was taken to task or grilled about the business of “cultural appropriation”, i.e. exploiting black musical forms such as the blues. He always found it ironic that white rock groups who played the blues – and made far more money from it than he could ever dream of – were rarely taken to task for this, largely because the rock press was far less intellectual and historically-minded than the jazz media. It was fine for the Eric Claptons and Jimmy Pages, but heaven forbid a jazz musician should do it.
But beyond this, how could all the music – both black and white – that Mose naturally absorbed and loved growing up in the Mississippi delta not be a genuine part of him? What was he supposed to do, ignore his roots and his talent? Who were the racists here? Those suggesting that the blues “belong” only to black people, or those who enjoyed a white boy’s unique interpretation of them, one authentic enough to fool the supposed “owners”?
It was all too deliciously ironic and provided grist for Mose’s mill. After many years of this wrong-headed nonsense, Mose decided not to get mad but to get even, writing “The Day the White Boys Stole the Blues”. Here is the closing verse, which says it all:
“The blues police from down in Dixieland, tried to catch me with the goods on hand. They knocked at my door but I was all smiles, I’d already shipped them to the British Isles. It’s been good for their revenues, the day the white boys stole the blues.”
With typical modesty, Mose commented through the years that his songs were largely a mixture of slapstick, social comment and personal crisis, which downplayed his wide and deep reading on many subjects. He stayed in touch with the world and often wrote gems of tunes about little things he observed. Such as the vagaries of chasing down money after a gig, in “Doin’ the Gettin’ Paid Waltz”. Or his hilarious “What’s Your Movie?”, about how far people often go to emulate the faddish and outlandish imagery of Hollywood. Or about the schizoid nature of materialism versus social conscience in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”: “Do I show my concern for the needy, for the folks who are livin’ outside? Or am I just plain greedy? – It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Or about the challenge of maintaining hope in an increasingly negative world, in “I’m Gettin’ There” – “I am not discouraged, I am not downhearted, I am not disillusioned…….but I’m gettin’ there, yeah…. I’m gettin’ there.”
Or about the inevitable onslaught of aging, which he dealt with humorously in “I’m A Certified Senior Citizen” – “I’ve got Florida on my mind, I’ll raise hell in Arizona”. He also dealt with the fracture of time – past, bewildering present and future – which the passage of years brings, in one of his most beautiful and moving songs, “Was”. Here it is, from 1990:
As with many great musicians I had the privilege to work with, I learned so much from Mose, but with him much of it was extra-musical and philosophical. His songs, which held up a drily ironic and satirical mirror to a world full of greed, hypocrisy, lies and just plain stupidity, offered a means of laughing at all this nonsense. And being around Mose and playing his music showed me a way of being that provided a buffer against all this woeful ignorance, one which didn’t involve political posturing, lame slogans or protest marches. Namely, that the very act of playing jazz, of immersing oneself in the blues and the joy of swinging and improvisation could counteract the idiocy of the world in active terms. Like, bring on the worst, but I’ll be busy digging Robert Johnson and Lester Young and Duke, you know? I’m eternally grateful to Mose for making me aware of all this in his own gently offbeat and poetic way.
In “Was”, Mose wonders if in the future there will be “someone around, with essentially my kinda sound?” No, not likely Mose, you broke the mold. I’ll close with these selected lines from his “Everybody’s Cryin'”, which summarize his work, his wit and wisdom, as well as anything he wrote:
“Everybody’s cryin’ justice, just as long as it don’t cost too much.”
Everybody’s cryin’ Peace on Earth, just as soon as we win this here war.
Everybody’s cryin’ mercy, but they don’t know the meanin’ of the word.”
Here’s to Mose Allison, who knew the meanin’s of the words.
© 2016 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.