The music of pianist, singer, and composer Mose Allison has had an influence well beyond his record sales. Known as “The William Faulkner of Jazz,” Allison has been recording for more than 35 years and few musicians have had greater impact as a stylist or songwriter.
Along with Art Blakey and Horace Silver, Allison helped reintroduce the down-home feel of Southern blues to jazz at a time when the genre was becoming more cerebral. Van Morrison rates Mose as one of the greatest songwriters of our century, and musicians everywhere swap Mose’s lyrics like punch lines to an inside joke.
Mose Allison, one of the few jazz artists to achieve acclaim as both a vocalist and an instrumentalist, was born on November 11, 1927, in his grandfather’s farmhouse on the island in Tippo Bayou, Missouri, about three miles from town. At five he discovered he could play the piano by ear and began “picking out” blues and Boogie Woogie tunes he heard on the local jukebox.
Mose often listened to blues records on the jukebox at his father’s service station. He recalled that the jukebox there contained, in addition to country and jazz, blues records by Memphis Minnie, Josh White, Big Bill Broonzy, and others.
Louis Jordan does a cool smooth version of his classic song here. Arranged by Quincy Jones, there’s Louis Jordan (alto saxophone, and vocal); Irving Ashby, Mickey Baker (guitar); Budd Johnson (tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone); Sam “The Man” Taylor (tenor saxophone); Ernie Royal (trumpet); Ernie Hayes (piano); and Charlie Persip (drums). You can hear how this might have influenced a young Mose Allison.
His father Mose John Allison, Sr., learned to play piano from piano rolls, and would often entertain at home on Sundays, sometimes playing together with one-man-band Percy Walker, an African American. Allison’s mother Maxine encouraged him to take piano lessons at age five, and he soon discovered an ability to play by ear and a preference for “bluesy” songs. In his early teens, Allison wrote his first song, a parody in the style of jump bluesman Louis Jordan, and began performing at local parties and school events.
Sonny Boy Williamson
Nat “King” Cole
While attending high school in Charleston, Allison picked up the trumpet, formed a Dixieland group, and began performing at clubs. He also played trumpet in the marching and dance bands and started writing his own songs. After enrolling at the University of Mississippi, he joined the school dance band, the Mississippians. During an 18-month stint in the U. S. Army that interrupted his schooling, he became immersed in jazz and its associated hip lifestyle. Allison returned to Ole Miss but soon gravitated to the blues and jazz scenes of Memphis, where he saw performances by John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson and others. He left the university to perform on the road with his own group in the style of the trio of Nat “King” Cole, a major vocal influence.
After a year on the road, Mose married and returned to college at Louisiana State University and graduated in 1952 with a BA in English and Philosophy.
In 1956, Mose moved to New York City and befriended a group of musicians sharing a loft on 34th Street, where he soon achieved acclaim as a jazz artist, recording with the leading jazzmen including Al Cohn, Stan Getz, and Shelly Manne.
Mose’s piano style is rooted in Delta blues, but he embellishes his rustic sensibility with bebop-oriented improvisations. His playing also betrays his love of European classical composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Ives. But the early influence of Louis Jordan is never far from his mind.
Allison debuted on record under his own name in 1957 via Prestige Records. Prestige tried to market Mose as a pop star, while Columbia Records and later Atlantic Records, who signed Mose in 1959 and 1962, retrospectively, tried to market him as a blues artist, with the album “Back Country Suite,” which featured his vocals on Mercy Dee Walton’s blues hit “One Room Country Shack.” His music always retained a strong blues influence, though, and in addition to covering the songs of Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon, Allison authored blues standards including “Parchman Farm.”
Allison’s next album, “Local Color,” featured “Parchman Farm,” later covered by Georgie Fame, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Johnny Winter, and Bobbie Gentry, among others. Allison’s original lyrics often displayed the dark humor and pathos that characterizes the blues, as exemplified by “Your Mind is On Vacation,” “Gettin’ There,” “Ever Since I Stole the Blues,” and “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy.”
For those curious as to how Bobbie Gentry would “interpret” the song. I believe she provides a pretty credible performance:
Mose continued working with his own trio, writing and singing his own songs. His songs are a fusion of rustic blues and jazz, with profound and often humorous lyrics. As a pianist, while admiring jazz masters Bud Powell and Lenny Tristano, he also learned from composers such as Bartok, Ives, Hindemith and Ruggles. The fusing of these diverse elements into a cohesive performance continues today. A biography, One Man’s Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison, written by Patti Jones, was published in 1995 by Quartet Books Ltd. Of London.
As a vocalist and songwriter, Allison was particularly influential on blues-rock artists from the United Kingdom, including Van Morrison, Ray Davies of the Kinks, Jack Bruce of Cream, and Pete Townshend of the Who, a band that covered Allison’s generational anthem “Young Man Blues” on several albums.
His most recent Grammy nomination was for one of his two newest recordings, Mose Chronicles, Live in London, Vol. I on Blue Note Records. Mose Chronicles, Vol II was released a year later. British-born director Paul Bernays produced a one-hour documentary on Mose entitled, Mose Allison: Ever Since I Stole the Blues, for the BBC. Among recent releases are a dozen reissues on CD including Allison Wonderland, a double CD retrospective on Rhino, and High Jinks, a three CD package on Legacy. Blue Note has also re-released a collection of past recordings, Mose Allison, Jazz Profiles. His music has often been featured in films, and he can be seen performing in the movie, The Score, starring Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando.
Mose resides in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina with his wife of 62 years, Audre. They lived on Long Island, for over 40 years where they raised four children: Alissa, an attorney, John, a telecommunications specialist, Janine. a psychiatrist, and Amy, a singer/songwriter based in New York.
Mose, 89 years of age, retired from live performance in 2012 and received the honor of being named a jazz master by the NEA in 2013.
Allison is reported to have strong views about “the domination of money over everything, the growing lack of empathy on the part of the powers-that-be for the population, wars & more wars, and an underlying hypocrisy in society and the arrogance of colonizers of the Americas”. It would be interested in hearing his opinions on president-elect Donald Trump.