Henry “Red” Allen deserves to be celebrated — a monumentally surprising individualist with deep New Orleans roots but as modern as you could want. He demonstrated his quirky powers for four decades on record and in performance: in one phrase, harking back to street parades and the great trumpet tradition including his friend and sometime employer Louis Armstrong, then creating dancing angular phrases that came from nowhere, broke in through the side window, tap-danced in the air, and left in a flash.
If the history of jazz had not been compressed by star-makers and taxonomists (Louis to Roy to Dizzy to Miles, no local stops) more people would have noticed that Red’s phrasing and note choices are as deliciously odd as Lester’s or Monk’s — earlier. With some splendid musicians, you can anticipate what they might play and what directions their solos might take: not Henry Red. And as a singer. he blends the romance of an African-American Crosby and the wildness of Leo Watson, the good grease of Lips Page — always recognizable as himself.
In the Thirties, Red worked with the Fletcher Henderson band, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, and eventually with Louis’ large band — which grew out of the 1929-30 Luis Russell Orchestra, perhaps the happiest band in jazz. He recorded with a variety of blues singers, with Billie Holiday and James P. Johnson — but the records that many of us treasure are a series made for jukeboxes between 1933 and 1937.
Their premise was simple: get a small band of expert swing musicians (none of them famous enough to command salaries above scale), pass out current pop tunes, make sure the melody and lyrics were clear and distinct in an opening chorus, and let the fellows swing out.
Red’s cohorts on these recordings were (among others) trombonists Bennie Morton, Dicky Wells, and J.C. Higginbotham; reedmen Coleman Hawkins, Cecil Scott, Chu Berry, Hilton Jefferson, Russell Procope, Tab Smith, Buster Bailey, rhythm players Don Kirkpatrick, Horace Henderson, John Kirby, Bernard Addison, Lawrence Lucie, Walter Johnson, and others. Many years ago these records were available in complete chronological order on vinyl and CD, but those issues are hard to find. They rank with the best Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, and Mildred Bailey recordings.
But this is not simply a celebration of the hallowed dead. Rather, like so many musical occasions that delight me, the music presented below merges the past and the present at once. And if ever a musician could straddle 1933 and 2012 without ripping his suit trousers, it would be our man Jon-Erik Kellso. He is wise enough to play himself rather than copying Red, but he loves the small band recordings Red and Coleman Hawkins created. He and a congenial small band — Alex Hoffman, tenor saxophone; Bob Havens, trombone; John Sheridan, piano; Kerry Lewis, string bass; Pete Siers, drums — swung out in tribute to Red, Hawk, and the good music you could hear on a jukebox or at home in 1933-4 . . . at Jazz at Chautauqua 2012.
I’M RHYTHM CRAZY NOW comes from the (Horace) Henderson book, and it lives up to its title in an understated way:
THE DAY YOU CAME ALONG was a voluptuous hit for Bing Crosby at his most romantic — and it became a great showcase for Coleman Hawkins (yet another example of Crosby’s magnificent influence across “schools” and “styles”):
YOU’RE GONNA LOSE YOUR GAL, for better or worse, is purely instrumental here, so we miss out on the profound lines, “acting like a two-time lover / sneaking kisses under cover / you’ll wake up and you’ll discover”:
Fats Waller’s rhetorical urging us to joy, AIN’T CHA GLAD?:
From the very first session Red and Hawk attempted — with tuba and banjo at the orders of the recording executives — SISTER KATE:
I’VE GOT MY FINGERS CROSSED, a hot tune, might not have been recorded by Red — but Fats and Louis created memorable recordings of it (in Fats’ case, a film appearance) so it’s welcome here:
May your happiness increase.