Songwriter, singer and piano master Mose Allison has influenced more rock ‘n’ roll musicians than there are keys on the piano. Modern and classic rockers who cite Allison as an influence include the Who, Elvis Costello, Georgie Fame, John Mayall, Bonnie Raitt, John Hammond, Leon Russell, the Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, and Van Morrison. And that’s the short list.
Born in Tippo, Mississippi, Allison began writing his own songs in his youth. After attending the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, he moved to New York City in the mid-1950s. "I remember I was with my wife, Audre, and my oldest daughter. We came into New York City in a 1950 Chevrolet with a bad transmission, so it was pretty phantasmagoric! Actually, though, I had an aunt whom we stayed with for the first few weeks, and then we got our own place on 103rd Street and Columbus Avenue."
It was a critical time in the history of jazz, and jazz clubs were everywhere in Manhattan. Manhattan is still the jazz capital of the world, but with fewer clubs. Allison’s first big break in New York was his recordings for Prestige Records with Al Cohn and Bob Brookmeyer. A short time later, he played with legendary saxophonist Stan Getz, and according to a 1990 interview, he got more publicity from playing with Getz.
He has suffered throughout his long career from a "categorization problem," he says, because he plays both blues and jazz. He recalls his earliest days in New York City, a completely different environment than the polite, genteel surroundings he enjoyed in his native Tippo. "Jazz was really happening then. There was a lot happening, there were a lot of jazz labels, and I remember there was a Time magazine cover story on Dave Brubeck, and the slant was, ‘Jazz is now respectable.’
So that brought on a jazz boom in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The blues thing was behind that, that whole renaissance all came about a few years later in the folk era. When I first came to New York, nobody had heard of Muddy Waters and very few people had heard of Ray Charles."
It wasn’t until the 1960s, when he was with Atlantic Records, that Allison began to get recognition for his piano playing and wry, cynical, witty songs. The folk and blues revival during that decade helped his reputation and album sales. "I did sing blues but I played a lot of jazz piano," he says. "I would be playing these clubs, and I’d start out playing jazz piano, and everybody would be sittin’ around gettin’ exasperated, because they came to hear me sing the blues! I just managed to get a little more work every year until I finally started making a living. I never did have a big year in those times, and my wife always worked."
Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, Allison has continued to write great songs, and he has remained a favorite of the jazz and blues cognoscenti. He has released a string of great recordings with the Blue Note label – arguably the best place to record if you are a jazz or blues artist – including "My Backyard" in 1990, "The Earth Wants You" in 1994, "Gimcracks and Gewgaws" in 1997, and "Live in London," volumes one and two, in 2001 and 2002.
His classic tunes, many of which he will perform at his Odette’s appearance, beginning Friday, June 10, include "Your Mind Is On Vacation," "Young Man’s Blues," "Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy," "Certified Senior Citizen," "Ever Since I Stole The Blues," "The Gettin’ Paid Waltz," and "That’s Your Red Wagon."
The key to appreciating Allison is appreciating his eclecticism. His piano playing is decidedly blues-based, as is the case with most good jazz piano players, but his singing has a jazz-inflected flavor. "I’ve never discriminated between jazz and blues piano. There are blues players who don’t improvise much, but most do improvise some. My technical definition of jazz is that it has to be performed, thought, and felt simultaneously. The jazz player is always trying to get into playing it and thinking it and feeling it all at the same time. If you are serious about it, you will get into that. And the music business doesn’t give a damn about that. They want a product that is well-defined and has a category. So, the playing of jazz is completely adverse to the music business. But I’m still serious about trying to play good jazz, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve had the problems I’ve had in the music business over the years."
Allison is a stickler for good sound. He always makes time in his schedule to perform a good, solid sound check. At his Odette’s appearances, Allison – who works with a few booking agents but primarily books himself – will be accompanied by two local musicians, guitarist Jim Dragoni and bassist Dylan Taylor.
Mose Allison, Friday through Sunday, June 10 to 12, Odette’s, 274 South River Road, New Hope, Pennsylvania. 215-862-3000.