Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Listening to Prestige 258: Mose Allison

All it took was Back Country Suite to get me hooked on Mose Allison. I bought all his subsequent Prestige albums as soon as they were released, and most of his later albums, on Columbia, Atlantic and Blue Note.

So many jazz greats got their first break with Prestige, then moved on to other labels. Miles, Monk, MJQ, Sonny Rollins, Billy Taylor, just to name a few. Of course, one of the main reasons for moving from a small label to a bigger one is money. Another is creative differences and career management--Monk moved from Blue Note to Prestige to Riverside, all small labels, and stayed with Riverside for years. But money doesn't come easily to jazz musicians, and it never came easily to musicians who recorded for Prestige. I recall reading an interview with Allison some years ago, in which he said that he'd never seen a royalty from Prestige for Back Country Suite. But apparently this was not a rare experience for Mose. In a 1998 interview with Blues Access Magazine, he says that he never got royalties from any of his labels, meaning Columbia and then Atlantic, which in 1962 was an independent on the verge of becoming a major. Allison remembers the first real money he ever made from a recording:

I got a check in the mail from Jazz Editions for $7000. I thought, ‘Man, what the hell is this? This must be some mistake.’ I’d been gettin’ 20 dollars and 30 dollars, and I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I didn’t know anything about ’em [the Who]... the first time I ever made any money off a record.
 The Who had recorded Allison's vocal vignette from Back Country Suite on their album Live at Leeds as "Young Man Blues." Jazz Editions was George Wallington's publishing company, and yet another source for money that did not come to Allison. Most musicians didn't really understand the concept of publishing rights in the 50s, which is why so many of the early rhythm and blues, rock and roll and doo wop performers, as well as jazz musicians,  found that most of their money wound up in the pockets of whoever had taken the publishing rights to their songs. But Wallingford did bring Allison to Prestige, and got his career started.

Local Color was sort of like Back Country Suite, a series of pieces by Allison that reflected his own unique perspective on the blues. Back Country Suite had been short interconnected vignettes, in part inspired by
Bela Bartok. At LSU I heard him for the first time, one of his things, the piano suite, "Hungarian Sketches," or somethin’, just a piano playin’ fairly simple tunes. But they were so evocative. That gave me the idea. I said, "Well, hell, I can do that. With my background, the music I grew up with, I ought to be able to come up with somethin’ like that."
 The Local Color tunes have the same quality, but they're worked out at full length, as opposed to the vignettes of the first album. And again, the second side of the album is given over mostly to the work of other composers. There's a traditional blues credited to New Orleans musician Richard M. Jones, and songs by Percy Mayfield, Bennie Benjamin/George David Weiss, and Duke Ellington.

The blues is "Trouble in Mind," and Allison plays trumpet on it. He would record a few more trumpet pieces on subsequent albums, but eventually, as he became more and more a singer, it dropped out of his repertoire. I'm not qualified to discuss the technical merits of Mose's trumpet playing. It sounds good to me. And it sounds very much of a piece with his piano and voice.

A while back, I was teaching a course in public speaking at a New York State prison, and one of my students, who I'll call M____, was extraordinary. I had a lot of good students, but M____ had a naturally academic mind. In another, perhaps fairer world, he would have been getting a Ph.D. someplace. When he gave his last speech of the semester, I told him there was nothing I could offer in the way of criticism: subject matter, research, development of argument, delivery. Just one thing, perhaps: maybe it's time you paid attention to conventional subject-verb agreement, and got away from formulations like "he say" and "he be." That sparked a discussion, with good and thoughtful points being made on both sides. At one point, another student in the class said "I want to hear the real M____, not M_____ the intellectual." I said, "I have to disagree with you. I think M_____ the intellectual is the real M_____."

And so with Mose Allison. His trumpet, his piano, his voice -- all carried the down home authenticity of his background in rural Mississippi and the literate sophistication of his degree in English from LSU. That was Mose, and that was Mose. And there was no contradiction.

"Lost Mind" is one of the two vocal performances on the album, and it's the recording that turned me on to Percy Mayfield, known as "The Poet of the Blues." I had heard and loved "Please Send Me Someone to Love," but it was Allison's version of "Lost Mind" that really made me focus on Mayfield, who, according to Specialty Records head Art Rupe, could have been, with the right encouragement, another Langston Hughes.

"Lost Mind" is great, but it was the other vocal, Allison's own "Parchman Farm," that made his reputation as a singer and songwriter. "Blues" (later known as "Young Man Blues") from the first album had been a vignette from the suite, but "Parchman Farm" was full length, fully realized, and ready to me marketed on 45 RPM. Which it was, twice. Once with Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore (from Young Man Mose) and once with Willie Dixon's The Seventh Son. It became his most popular song, although he eventually stopped doing it, perhaps because it was criticized for being politically incorrect (although on those grounds you'd have to throw out at least three quarters of the blues), perhaps because it just stopped seeming relevant. From an interview in Nine-O-One Network Magazine, quoted in Wikipedia:

I don't do the cotton sack songs much anymore ["One Room Country Shack" also features one]. You go to the Mississippi Delta and there are no cotton sacks. It's all machines and chemicals.

The vocals are so good that sometimes people forget that Mose was first a jazz piano player, discovered and encouraged by Al Cohn and George Wallington. So I've put up one of the instrumental pieces from Local Color as my listening choice for today.

Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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