The man, the music, the name: Mose
Aspen Times Staff Writer
“Mose John Allison Jr.,
That’s the way it’s written in the book.
Don’t call me Moss, don’t call me Moose,
It’s not some made up show biz hook.”
– from “MJA Jr.,” by Mose Allison
Mose Allison traces his musical identity – a combination of hip, urban jazzman and world-forsaked Delta bluesman that is as unique as any in the business – to a number of sources.
There is his hometown of Tippo, Miss., which Allison describes as “a crossroads: two general stores, a service station, a post office and a cotton gin.” Despite its smallness – and Allison notes it has only faded since his childhood there – Tippo was, like most Mississippi Delta towns in the 1930s, filled with music, almost all of it the direct descendant of black America.
“In Tippo, on any Saturday night, you’d go to a party and there’d be 10 white people and 400 black people,” said Allison. “I listened to Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, people like that. And I heard country blues on the jukebox. You’d hear Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie.”
There was also the piano teacher who lived across the Bayou from Tippo, from whom Allison took lessons for five years, beginning at age 5. “She was a trained pianist who had a master’s degree,” said Allison. “She could have taught anywhere, but she stayed in Mississippi.”
And there are the more interior traits that Allison seems to have been born with. His streak of devout individualism led Allison to stop taking piano lessons at the age of 10, and learn instead to play by ear and improvisation. His sense of skepticism, he says, was present at an early age.
But probably the one thing, above all else, that set Allison on his unique path is the thing that has been with him since the day he was born: that name, Mose John Allison Jr. Apart from his father, Allison has come across just one person – who also turned out to be from the Mississippi Delta – who shares his given name. (Ryan O’Neal’s grifter in “Paper Moon” doesn’t count; his character’s name was Moses. In the film, Tatum O’Neal called her father Mose because, even at that young age, she was a big Mose Allison fan.) It is the Mose handle that has led to Allison’s sharp sense of humor, the ironic take on the world that comes through in so many of his songs, and the fact that so many people have mistakenly assumed him to be a black man.
“Someone once said, ‘You have an irony hangup.’ But irony has been following me my whole life, since I’m little,” said Allison. “It started with my name. I got a lot of flack as a child, with people making jokes. And being from Tippo – ‘Mose from Tippo’ – I got a lot of kidding.”
But Allison himself has been noticeably comfortable in his skin.
In 1946, Allison made his first trip to Aspen, as a member of the 179th Ground Forces Band, affiliated with the 10th Mountain Division. Allison’s unit was on an eight-week, ski instruction stint at Leadville’s Camp Hale, and was called to play on Aspen Mountain to commemorate the opening of Lift 1A. (“I was the first guy to play the blues on Aspen Mountain,” said Allison.) Apart from the fact that Allison was a trumpeter in the Army band, there is little difference between the Allison of 1946 and the 75-year-old singer and pianist who will perform at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, Feb. 8.
“I haven’t changed,” said Allison, who will appear at the Wheeler in a trio that includes drummer Pete Magadini and bassist Kenny Walker. “I was always interested in essentials, and the essentials haven’t changed. I had the essentials laid out at the beginning. The essentials of jazz are melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing and a little personality. Those are the things I’ve tried to work toward. As [late American poet] Kenneth Patchen said, the duty of the artist is to resist trends.”
Allison can’t be accused of ever following the fashion of the day. Allison has watched bebop, folk, rock, fusion, disco and hip-hop take center stage, and none of it has affected his music in the least. Though he has occasionally added horns or guitar to his combo, the music has steadfastly centered around Allison’s unschooled piano playing, his detached voice, and those irony-laden, blues-toned songs. Rarely has he even been moved to try his hand at the electric piano, much less embellish his art with concept, experimentation or advanced production. His most recent albums – “The Mose Chronicles,” a two-volume set recorded in January 2000 at London’s Pizza Express, and the 1998 studio album “Gimcracks and Gewgaws” – are practically indistinguishable from his albums from the 1960s. Or ’70s. Or ’80s.
It’s hard to follow trends when you’re busy setting them. While Allison’s musical sound remains unique, his lyrical sense of humor is in the category of visionary. Songs written decades ago – “Middle Class White Boy,” “Ever Since I Stole the Blues,” “I Don’t Worry About a Thing” – show a self-referential and ironic wit that presaged the irony-saturated modern world. (For a full sense of his take on the world, listen to Allison’s ponderous, minor-key version of “You Are My Sunshine,” which has been an anthem of optimism for scores of other singers.) That sense of skewed humor has been with Allison before he became a professional musician. “It’s pretty much the same temperament now as I had way back,” said Allison. “It’s the slightly skeptical-type person, slightly sarcastic sometimes, with a sense of humor.”
Though Allison left Tippo for New York nearly 50 years ago, he credits his hometown for that offbeat way of putting things. “In Mississippi, nobody says anything straight out,” said Allison, who has lived in the same Smithtown, Long Island, house for 40-plus years with Audre Mae, his wife of 50-plus years. “It’s either understatement or exaggeration or the opposite of what you mean. The farmers there, they were real stoic figures, real quiet.
“I got that all at an early age. The first song I wrote, when I was 12 or 13, was called ‘Kidding on the Square.’ What that means is, you’re kidding on the surface, but not just joking. You’re making a point beneath the surface.” Another song from the barely teenaged Allison was “14-Day Palmolive Plan,” a satire on radio commercials.
Though Allison has had little interest in popular music since the advent of the rock age – he prefers contemporary classical music – he has been hailed by numerous rock and blues musicians. Elvis Costello, John Mayall and John Hammond have covered his songs. At her Jazz Aspen appearance two years ago, Bonnie Raitt, in the middle of her performance and seemingly out of nowhere, coaxed the Jazz Aspen powers to bring Allison to their festival. In 1996, Van Morrison, Georgie Fame and Ben Sidran collaborated with Allison on the CD “Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison.”
Most notorious of all has been the exposure given to Allison by the Who. In the hands of the Who, Allison’s “Back Country Suite: Blues” – renamed “Young Man’s Blues” by the Who – became a howling rallying call for the ’60s youth generation, and the centerpiece of the band’s landmark “Live at Leeds” album. Allison didn’t learn of the Who’s covering his song until a large royalty check appeared in his mailbox; he was sure it was a mistake.
The well of songs might be at an end. At 75, Allison is still a vigorous performer. He recently finished a stretch of playing 17 shows over three weeks – with Tuesday nights off – at London’s Pizza Express, a regular and favorite gig for Allison. He does two weeklong stretches at New York’s Iridium every year, as well as the occasional out-of-town dates.
Songwriting, however, isn’t a focus for Allison. He has no plans to record any new songs. And he gives his latest writing efforts a dismissive wave, calling them “foolish songs, about foolishness.”
It is, in a way, a shame. 1998’s “Gimcracks and Gewgaws” – both words of the title mean “showy object of little use,” another example of Allison’s irony at work – shows that Allison’s way with words hasn’t diminished. “Numbers on Paper,” in just 53 words, conveys the emptiness of chasing financial rewards. “MJA Jr.” is a comedy sketch on that influential name of his. The album ends with “Old Man’s Blues,” a companion to “Young Man’s Blues,” written to the same tune.
Given Allison’s sense of irony, it would be perfectly fitting if “Old Man’s Blues” – with the repeated lyric, “an old man ain’t nothing in the USA” – were the last track on Allison’s last album of new songs. And it may turn out that way.
“I don’t feel the urgency to write new songs,” he said. “I’ve written a lot of songs that I haven’t played in a long time, and I’m going back to some of them. They pretty well express all the attitudes I want to express.”
Even the attacks on New York in September 11 haven’t moved him to write. It would seem a natural for Allison, a longtime New Yorker and the creator of such fatalistic songs as “Ever Since the World Ended” and “I Don’t Worry About a Thing,” to respond to dire world events. But as Allison says, he was ahead of the terrorist attacks.
“I’ve already done that. The songs I have have been references that fit right into that,” he said. “That’s just an extension of something that’s going on all the time. That was just a particularly horrible splash.”
Should Allison never get back to serious writing, it will mark the end of one of the most distinctive voices in modern songwriting. But Allison hopes history will recognize there is at least some space between the voice of his songs and the flesh-and-blood that is Mose John Allison Jr. That coolly detached, fatalistic and sarcastic voice is not him. At least, not all of him.
“There’s evidence of me in everything,” he said. “But it’s not strictly autobiographical. I read, I listen to other people, I get it from the news. I’m not telling my life story.
“But I empathize with all the songs. I understand all the attitudes.”
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