© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
There are two things that are important about the following feature.
The first is that it is about Henry “Red” Allen, who, among all of the trumpet players of the generation that was first influenced by Louis Armstrong, consistently expressed Pops’ fiery passion in his playing.
And second, that it was written by Martin Williams, one of the Deans of Jazz writers.
As I re-read this piece, I was struck by the fact through appearances at clubs, European tours and on recording dates that it was still possible in the early 1960’s to earn a living as a working Jazz musician.
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 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 to feature the music of the festival.
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 you’d 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!
August 30, 1962
“Condition Red - Allen, That Is”
“TRUMPETER Henry (Red) Allen Jr. has been recording as leader of his own groups since 1929, but, like many a veteran professional, he still approaches record dates with a bit of apprehension and a slightly nervous determination that everything shall go well. At least he did have such apprehension when he was to do a date for the Prestige/ Swingville label recently, using the quartet he has been working with in clubs like the Embers in New York City and the London House in Chicago.
The session had been set up by Prestige's Esmond Edwards for 1 p.m. in the New Jersey studios of Rudy Van Gelder, across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan Island.
Red Allen, with his group, pulled up in his car in front of Van Gelder's 45 minutes early. He wanted everything to be relaxed and easy. Van Gelder—more used to lateness than earliness—was surprised and a bit dismayed by the arrival. But with a firm reminder that the date would not begin until 1, he opened his door to the quartet. "Early—this group is always early," said drummer Jerry Potter, with a half-smile that didn't exactly reveal his feelings on the matter.
The day itself had held little promise as a day. The sky was overcast, there was a drizzle, and by late afternoon, when the date had ended, a heavy rain was falling. But inside the high-ceilinged, wooden-beamed studio there was plenty of time to set up the drums, plenty of time to get acquainted with the room, and even time for Allen to go over his lyrics and review the list of tunes he wanted to make. He leaned over on the back of the studio piano and scanned his papers, wearing a pair of glasses that gave him a studied air, an air that few who have watched the exuberantly powerful Red Allen on the bandstand would recognize.
As the men waited, there was a casual exchange at the piano bench. Not once did the group's pianist, Lannie Scott, sit down to noodle. It was the bassist, Frank Scaate, who played first, and later Allen played. Musicians take this sort of thing for granted—nearly everyone plays some piano and enjoys it—but it is frequently surprising to outsiders.
A little before 1 p.m. Edwards arrived, also a bit surprised that the group was fully assembled. He took his place inside Van Gelder's booth, behind the large glass panel which is broad and high enough to take in the whole barnlike studio at a glance, and laid out his note paper and recording data sheets. Van Gelder soon had his machines threaded with tape and was seated behind his complex control panel.
The date was officially ready to begin. On the other side of the glass, the musicians began running through the first piece, Cherry, to warm up and to check the placement of the microphones. Allen was swinging from the first bar, and his very personal, often complex, phrases rolled out of his horn with an apparently casual ease. He was showing his fine control of the horn too. He would begin with an idea at a mere whisper of trumpet sound and develop it to a powerful shout at the end of his phrase—the kind of dynamics that few trumpeters employ.
After the run-through, Cherry was ready to go onto the tape. Take 1 had an inventive opening by Allen, but he stopped after his vocal, saying, "I goofed the words all up." Another take, but the bass wasn't balanced. First numbers on a record date usually go that way.
Then — Cherry No. 3. Everyone was working, and the group was concertedly alive. Allen was truly inventive, for he used only one brief phrase that he had played in any previous version of Cherry that day.
"That man really improvises,” someone in the booth said. Edwards and Van Gelder nodded agreement. "I wonder if he could repeat himself, even if he wanted to?"
As the ending rang out through the wooden rafters and across the mikes, warmly echoing the power and drive of the performance, Edwards was laughing and saying,
"They don't play like that any more!"
"Can we hear that back?" Allen asked at the end.
A bit later they began running through Sleepy Time Gal. Allen's lines were weaving in unexpected but logical directions, and he was beginning to show his command of the full range of his horn, with the perfectly played low notes that are almost his exclusive property. His melodies were still gliding over the rhythm section and the time with sureness and inner drive and no excess notes.
The first take of Sleepy Time Gal was much simpler than the run-through, and there was some trouble with the introduction. Allen is still more used to recording for the flat acetate record blanks than for the more recent magnetic tape, and he had been counting off the tempos to the group at a whisper. But with tape it's easy to remove a spoken count-off. "You can count it off out loud, Red,'' Edwards reminded him.
At the end of another take, Edwards apparently saw something was about to happen, and he reached for his mike to ask over the studio loud-speakers, "How are the chops? Can we do one more right away?"
"Yeah, sure, my man!" Allen said immediately. And then they did the best Sleepy Time Gal yet,
This time Allen came into the engineering booth to hear the playback and sat beside Van Gelder's elaborate array of dials and knobs. He raised and curved his eyebrows at a particularly lyric turn of phrase in his own improvising, pretty much the way any listener would m following the music.
By 2 p.m. they were into I Ain't Got Nobody, and on his vocal Allen was getting in as many as six notes just singing the word "I."
After the run-through, Edwards suggested Allen blow another trumpet chorus on the final take. Again, Allen's ideas were fresh and different each time they ran the piece down, and he still glided over the time with perfect poise. His trumpet alone might make the whole group swing. He counted them off loudly now for the final take: "One! Two!" And at the end, after the reverberations had settled, there was the inevitable Red Allen genial cry, "Nice!"
Then a short break as visitors arrived. Van Gelder immediately gave them a firm invitation to sit quietly in the studio and stay out of the booth. Drummer Potter came in to ask for a little more mike on his bass drum: "Can you bring it up a little? Then I can relax. I have to keep leaning on it otherwise. Like playing in a noisy club."
"Okay, we'll try ," Van Gelder said. "It's not easy to do."
IN THE studio, a photographer, there to get a shot for the album cover, had his lights and shutters going. Allen wasn't bothered. Nervous or not, he had been taking care of business from the beginning, and he was obviously impatient to get back to work.
Later, they were well into There's a House in Harlem, with Allen getting deep growl effects on his horn without a plunger. Again, every version was different. Van Gelder remarked for about the third time that they should be recording everything, including the warm-ups and run-throughs, and again shook his head in appreciation of how well Allen was playing.
Edwards stopped the take, remarking on the intro, and pianist Scott and bassist Scaate worked it out together before the tape rolled again.
They began Just in Time. "Everybody plays that thing now," a visitor remarked. "I guess it's become a jazz standard already. I heard Art Farmer do it the other day."
There was some trouble again with the intro so Allen took it himself, unaccompanied. They went through the piece once, and Allen was after Potter: "Let me hear a little more of that bass drum, please."
Another break. This one was officially called by Edwards. Allen still was eager to get back to work, and he toyed around on his horn with the next piece he wanted to do, Nice Work If You Can Get It.
"Johnny Hodges has a record of that," remarked Scott. "Did you hear it?"
A bit later, when Edwards suggested they go back to work, Allen had relaxed at least long enough to be showing a visitor a color picture he has of his mother, himself, and his granddaughter — four generations of the Allen family. But he broke off abruptly and went back to his mike.
On the take of Nice Work, piano and bass took it partly in "two" (ah there, Miles Davis). "Make it clean," Edwards had encouraged them during the run-through. Allen's variations rolled off easily and with a rare and personal symmetry.
The quartet then began to run down a piece that seemed both familiar and not familiar, a piece that sounded like the blues and was not exactly the blues, and 32 bars. When they got the routine set, Edwards asked for the title. Biffly Blues, said Allen — so it was a new version of the first record he ever did under his own name. One take, and for the time being everyone agreed with Edwards' comment, "That's it. It won't go down any better than that."
As they were running through St. Louis Blues, there was talk in the booth about "still another record of that one." But Edwards decided that if they did something different with it, then it should be recorded. They did.
It was getting late, nearly 4 p.m, and Edwards did some quick calculations from the timings recorded in his notes on the session
"Red, why not stretch out with a few more choruses on this," he said into the studio mike. "We'll have enough time for it on the LP."
While the tapes were rolling, Allen suddenly played very low on his horn again, growling out notes for almost two choruses. One take — as usual — did the blues.
The date was nearly over now. Edwards made more calculations on timing, and then stepped into the studio to suggest to Allen they do a longer version of Biffly Blues. Agreed.
"What does that title mean, Red?" a visitor asked hurriedly, hoping to get his question in before the tapes rolled again. "My nickname — when I was a kid," he smiled. "My folks used to call me Biffly when I wanted to be a baseball player. You know — biff — hit. Wham!"
After a rough start, occurring because Allen had placed his horn and set his chops too quickly, they got through a long taping of Biffly Blues, with Edwards conducting and encouraging through the glass of the booth — waving his arms emphatically at the rhythm section, as Allen concentrated on his solo choruses. (Creative a&r work, it's called.)
"You know," offered Potter at the end, "that Biffly Blues is the kind of piece that could hit."
"It is," said a visitor, "Anyway, it sounds just as fresh as when he first did it 30 years ago."
"No, fresher," said another onlooker softly. "Because Red is fresher. You can't date that kind of talent. And he's himself, and that means he's got things nobody else could pick up on.""