© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I met Henry “Red” Allen before I ever heard him play a note on trumpet. The venue was the luncheon buffet at The Viking Hotel in Newport, Rhode Island. The date was July 4, 1957. The occasion was the birthday celebration being held that night for Louis Armstrong at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Many of the musicians performing that evening were at the buffet including “Pops” himself. I never heard so much “Hey Daddy,” “Hey Gate” and “Hey Pops” before or since. These were all terms of endearment that Louis Armstrong used for his best buddies; they were also substitute greetings that Pops and friends used to greet people whose names they’d forgotten or never knew in the first place.
It was all so heartwarmingly informal: the feelings of respect and genuine affection that all of these fabulous musicians felt toward one another just hung in the air of that fan-cooled hotel banquet room and the joyousness would continue well into the hot and humid night on the bandstand that was temporarily erected in Freebody Park.
I didn’t know who “Red” Allen was but as I was to observe about many “big guys” over the years, I was impressed by his gentleness and kindness. He seemed to go out-of-his-way to ask me questions about my nascent interest in the music. The usual questions about “favorites” came up and when he asked me who my favorite drummer was I mentioned Krupa, Papa Jo Jones [whom I’d met earlier that day on the hotel’s veranda] and Davy Tough.
“Where did you hear those guys,” he asked. “On Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Woody Herman records,” I replied. And when he asked about my favorite trumpet player and I answered “Harry James,” he just threw back his head, howled with delight and said to no one in particular: “This young man really knows his trumpet players.” Little did I know at the time that Harry James idolized both Pops and Red.
Later that evening, after hearing his performance at the festival, I added another trumpet player to my list of favorites - Henry “Red” Allen. I’ve been collecting his records ever since that first meeting.
Man could that guy bring it!
Henry “Red” Allen was born in 1907 New Orleans, LA. His flamboyant and exploratory trumpet style was among the leading alternatives to Louis Armstrong's in the early and mid-1930s. His continuity of line, rhythmic flexibility, and harmonic conception were ahead of their time. In fact, Red's restless ear led contemporaries to accuse him of playing wrong notes, many of which would in later years be considered appropriate. His influence on other trumpeters was limited by the fact that he played in the shadow of Armstrong for much of his career although Roy Eldridge who influenced Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis is said to have been an admirer of Red’s. In addition to his interpretive skills as a trumpeter, Allen also possessed an "engaging baritone voice" and was a competent jazz singer.
After studying various instruments, including violin and E-flat alto horn (a miniature tuba), Red took trumpet lessons from his father, Henry senior, leader of the renowned Brass Band of Algiers (a neighborhood in New Orleans). He also listened to several New Orleans trumpeters, including Bunk Johnson and King Oliver, rehearse in his living room. At ten years old, Red was marching in his father's band. He played his first steady job with saxophonist John Handy at age seventeen (1925). In 1927 King Oliver invited Red to New York to join his new band, which soon failed, so Red returned to New Orleans to work on riverboat bands with Fate Marable.
In 1929 Allen was again invited to New York as Victor Records' answer to Louis Armstrong, who was recording for Columbia. Red was hired by Luis Russell, the pianist who had taken over the King Oliver band, and recordings both for Russell and under his own name established Allen's reputation. "Biffly Blues" reveals that although Allen was obviously influenced strongly by Armstrong, he possessed a clearer, more polished sound and slower vibrato, as well as a personal sense of time. In contrast to his sensitive instrumental and vocal reinterpretation of the ballad "Roamin'," Allen displays the confident bravura of a Swing Era lead trumpeter on "Shakin' the African."
Fletcher Henderson enticed Allen to join his band in the summer of 1933, and Allen's agile, flowing solos with Henderson would influence trumpeter Harry James's work on the Henderson charts later commissioned by Benny Goodman. After he left Henderson's group in 1934, Allen's popularity peaked. From 1934 to 1937, while he was employed in the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, he also free-lanced extensively, recording over eighty sides in three years for the Vocalion label.
In 1936 Red performed in the Eddie Condon—Joe Marsala group, one of the first racially integrated bands on Fifty-second Street. In 1937 Allen joined the Luis Russell Orchestra, which was an organization built around the popularity of its featured soloist, Louis Armstrong. Allen had to serve as Armstrong's warm-up act, a somewhat demeaning role considering Allen's originality and technical mastery of the trumpet. Allen endured this role— while also freelancing around Fifty-second Street — until 1940, when the Russell Orchestra was fired by Armstrong's manager.
In 1940 Allen formed his own sextet and opened at Cafe Society. As a leader Allen proved to be good-natured, professional, and a good showman without compromising his music. The sextet featured a fellow Russell and Armstrong alumnus, trombonist J. C. Higginbotham. From the mid-1940s to the early 1950s, Allen was forced to travel extensively as the appeal of bebop reduced his popularity in New York. Occasionally, he juxtaposed traditional New Orleans — influenced phrases and bebop-flavored figures ('The Crawl").
Following the breakup of his sextet, Allen became the house bandleader at the Metropole in New York (1954), which remained his musical headquarters until 1965. On a 1957 recording of "I Cover the Waterfront" with Coleman Hawkins, Allen displays a more deliberate, mature approach than is evident in his 1930s work, employing fewer notes and adroitly exploring his trumpet's extreme lower register. In 1965 modernist Don Ellis praised Allen's unflagging inventiveness and mastery of various moods and tonal effects: "[He] is the most creative and avant-garde player in New York . . . a true improviser." After a tour of Great Britain, Allen died of cancer in 1967.
Whitney Balliett, one of the preeminent writers on the subject of Jazz was a great fan of Henry “Red” Allen and visited him often at the Metropole Cafe’ while writing about him frequently for The New York Magazine.
You can read one of the shorter pieces that Whitney did on Red below and locate a lengthier profile on Allen in Whitney’s American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz [Oxford].
Cheers for Red Allen
Dinosaurs in the Morning: 41 Pieces on Jazz [Lippincott]
“THE PRE-EMINENCE of Louis Armstrong from 1925 to 1935 had one unfortunate effect: it tended to blot out the originality and skill of several contemporary trumpeters who, though they listened to Armstrong, had pretty much gone their own way by 1930. These included, among others, Bobby Stark, Joe Smith, Jabbo Smith (no relation), Bill Coleman, and Henry (Red) Allen. Stark and Joe Smith are dead. Jabbo Smith, a scarifying musician, lives in Milwaukee and performs rarely. Coleman, in Europe, still displays much of his grace. But Allen, the most steadfast of the three, and a distinct influence on Roy Eldridge, who taught Dizzy Gillespie, who taught Miles Davis, and so forth, is playing (usually in New York) with more subtlety and warmth than at any other time in his career. This is abundantly evident in two fairly recent and rather odd releases, Red Allen Meets Kid Ory and We've Got Rhythm: Kid Ory and Red Allen (Verve), in which Allen, lumped with second- and third-class musicians, plays with a beauty and a lets-get-this-on-the-road obstinacy that transform both records into superior material.
A tall, comfortably oval-shaped man of fifty-four, with a deceptively sad basset-hound face, Allen, born in Algiers, Louisiana, has had a spirited career, despite the shadows he has been forced to work in. He played briefly with King Oliver in 1927, and two years later he joined Luis Russell, another Oliver alumnus. Russell's band was possibly the neatest, hottest, and most imaginative group of its time. It was also, thanks to Russell's arrangements and rhythmic innovations and to Allen's already exploratory solos, a considerably advanced one.
In 1933, Allen joined Fletcher Henderson, with whom he continued his avant-garde ways, and after a period with the Blue Rhythm Band he came face to face in 1937 with Goliath himself when he had become a practically silent member of Louis Armstrong's you-go-your-way, ril-go-mine big band, a group kept afloat by Sid Catlett, J. C. Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes, and the leader. Since 1940, Allen has led a succession of often excellent small groups, which have included Higginbotham, Edmond Hall, Don Stovall (alto saxophone), and Alvin Burroughs.
Allen's recording activity has been prolific; he was particularly active during the thirties, when he set down fifty or sixty numbers with small groups, some of which were unabashed attempts to make money ("The Miller's Daughter Marianne," "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down," "When My Dream Boat Comes Home") and some of which were, and are, first-rate jazz records ("Why Don't You Practice What You Preach," "There's a House in Harlem for Sale," "Rug Cutter's Swing," "Body and Soul," and "Rosetta"). Lamentably, only two or three of these, along with two classic sides made in 1939 with Lionel Hampton, are now available.
Allen's style had just about set by the time he joined Russell. There were traces in it of Oliver and Armstrong, but more apparent were its careless tone, its agility, and a startling tendency to use unprecedentedly long legato phrases and strange notes and chords that jazz musicians hadn't, for the most part, had the technique or courage to use before. Allen's playing also revealed an emotion and a partiality to the blues that often seemed to convert everything he touched into the blues. But his adventurousness and technique weren't always in balance; he hit bad notes, he blared, and he was ostentatious. Once in a while he would start a solo commandingly and then, his mind presumably going blank, would suddenly falter, ending his statement in a totally different mood and tenor, as if he were attempting to glue parts of two unmatchable solos together.
By the mid-forties, Allen's work had, in fact, turned increasingly hard and showy — he fluttered his valves, used meaningless runs, and affected a stony tone — and this peculiar shrillness continued into the fifties. Then, six or so years ago, Allen made a pickup recording with Tony Parenti, the clarinetist, for Jazztone, and, not long after, one for Victor with Higginbotham, Coleman Hawkins, and Cozy Cole, and a remarkable new Allen broke into view. Perhaps sheer middle-aged physical wear—a reluctance to blow so hard, a reluctance to try and prove so much — was the reason. Or perhaps he had been listening to younger and milder trumpeters like Miles Davis and Art Farmer. For his tone has become softer and fuller, he shies away from the upper register (he spends a good deal of time inflating sumptuous balloons in the lowest register), his customarily long figures are even longer, his sensuous, mid-thirties affection for the blues has again become dominant, and he often employs harmonies that would please Thelonious Monk.
In short, he gives the impression not of hammering at his materials from the outside but, in the manner of Lester Young and Pee Wee Russell, of transforming them insistently if imperceptibly from the inside, like a mole working just under the grass. The results, particularly in slower tempos (the old shrillness sometimes recurs at faster speeds), can be unbelievably stirring. An Allen solo in a slow blues may go like this: He will start with a broad, quiet, shushing note, pause, repeat the note, and, using almost no vibrato, fasten two more notes onto it, one slightly higher and one slightly lower, pause again (Allen's frequent use of silences is another new aspect of his work, as is his more expert use of dynamics), repeat and enlarge the second phrase a little way down the scale, and, without a rest, get off a legato phrase, with big intervals, that may shatter into a rapid run and then be reformed into a dissonant blue note, which he will delightfully hold several beats longer than one expects; he then finishes this with a full vibrato and tumbles into a quick, low, almost under-the-breath flourish of half a dozen notes. Such a solo bears constant re-examination; it is restless, oblique, surprising, lyrical, and demanding. It seizes the listener's emotions, recharges them, and sends them fortified on their way.
The pairing of Allen with the venerable Kid Ory is curious, to say the least. Allen is a modernish swing musician, and Ory is one of the last representatives of genuine New Orleans style. His solos are gruff paraphrases of the melody, while Allen's are intricate temples of sound. Moreover, Allen's leisurely, independent melodic lines are far too spacious to fit within the limitations of the New Orleans ensemble. But perhaps all this is to the good. Ory's sandpaper tone and elementary patterns tend to set off Allen's housetop-to-housetop swoops, and since Allen can't, or won't, adapt himself to the ensemble, he simply solos throughout most of the recordings, which gives us twice as much of him. By and large, the first of the Verve records is the better. Of the seven numbers, all standards, three—
"Blues for Jimmy," "Ain't Misbehavin’ and "Tishomingo Blues"—present Allen at his peak. In fact, his single-chorus solo in the slow "Blues for Jimmy" is faultless. This is nearly true of his work on the Waller tune, which is full of blue notes and wind-borne figures. (Puzzlingly, neither of the two vocals is by Allen, who, in addition to his other merits, is one of the handful of true jazz singers. His voice is in between Armstrong’s and Jelly Roll Morton's, and because of its almost feline, back-of-the-beat phrasing it has long foretold his playing of today.) The second session contains seven more standards, which are notable for Allen's playing in "Some of These Days," in which he tries a few teetering but generally successful auld-lang-syne upper-register handstands; for, in "Christopher Columbus," his muted chorus, which is followed by an open-horn one that begins in his lowest, or trombone, register; and for his three remarkably sustained choruses in the medium-tempo "Lazy River." The rest of the band stands around and watches, so to speak, and only the drummer, Alton Redd, gets in the way.”
The following video feature Red with Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in a 1934 version of Fletcher’s original composition Wrappin’ It Up.