“He can sound at times like a richly endowed Bobby Hackett, or a wise, matured Miles Davis…As the years passed, Allen could embrace other styles without really ever going outside himself.” – Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era (Oxford)
Henry ‘Red’ Allen was born one hundred years ago (7 January 1908) in Algiers, a suburb of New Orleans. He died in 1967, a well-respected and popular figure amongst jazz musicians and discerning fans, but otherwise virtually unknown. The main reason for Allen’s relative lack of recognition can be summed up in two words: “Louis Armstrong”. Like every other jazz trumpeter of his generation, Allen was eclipsed by the phenomenon that was Armstrong and seen by the public as -at best- a talented copyist. Allen’s career was effected by his fellow New Orleanian even more than most because in his early days he sounded a lot like Satch (and was briefly contracted by Victor records as a would-be “answer” to Okeh’s man), and because he spent much of the 1930’s playing in Armstrong’s backing group, the Luis Russell Orchestra.
However, Red emerged from Armstrong’s shadow and developed a highly individual instrumental (and vocal) style of his own. Don Ellis (a trumpet player of a much younger generation) asked the following rhetorical questions about Allen in Down Beat magazine: “What other trumpet player plays such asymmetrical rhythms and manages to make them swing besides? What other trumpeter plays ideas that may begin as a whisper, rise to a brassy shout, and suddenly become a whisper again , with no discernable predictability? Who else has the amazing variety to tonal colours, bends, smears, half-valve effects, rips, glissands, flutter-tonguing (a favourite on a high D), all combined with iron chops and complete control of even the softest , most subtle tone production?”
Philip Larkin (a big fan) wrote: “There was always something unusual about Allen’s playing: even at the start he tended to sound like Armstrong in a distorting mirror, and by the end of his life an Allen solo was a brooding, gobbling, stretched, telegraphic thing of half notes and quarter-tones, while an Allen vocal sounded like a man with a bad conscience talking in his sleep.” (All What Jazz, Faber and Faber) .
Allen was probably more enthusiastically admired in Britain than in his native land, and he toured here four times, striking up a close musical and personal rapport with the Alex Welsh band, his Brit accompanists of choice.
The band’s guitarist, Jim Douglas, writing in 2000, describes their final tour together, in 1967:
“A few weeks prior to Henry ‘Red’ Allen’s fourth and final visit to these shores, word spread that the Great Man was unwell but would under no circumstances cancel the scheduled tour with the Alex Welsh Band. We had, of course, no idea that he was in fact dying from pancreatic cancer or that we would see such a physical change in him. Gone was the well-padded rounded figure. Gone the double-chinned chubby countenance, the broad-beamed posterior and the sparkle in the once mischief-filled eyes.
“He appeared taller than before in clothes that hung from his diminishing frame as the insidious parasitical infestation bit deep. There was a sadness on his expressive face as his mouth formed and uttered the customary ‘Nice!’ on joining the band at the bar of the M.S.G. (Manchester Sports Guild -JD). In his hand he grasped the silver tankard Alex had presented to him as a momento of our affection after the first tour.
“‘Number three! Number three! Nice!’ he expostulated holding the handle towards the as usual grim-faced ‘Jenks’, the manager and co-promoter, who filled it to the brim with William Younger’s Scotch Ale. Henry liked British beer, his favourites being the fore-mentioned and Newcastle Brown Ale.
“Looking back, thirty three years on, and trying to recall incidents and anecdotes from that tour, one overpowering feeling keeps forming on my mind – the incredible courage the man showed night after night, day after day. We were booked to play at Douglas House, an American Services club in the Bayswater Road, London. Hardly an easy audience, easily distracted by the bar and gambling facilities available. Henry took them by the scruff of their necks by blowing ‘The Saints’ quietly in their individual ears until he had their rapt, undivided attention. There was no indication of the pain he must have endured and certainly no lack of energy, frail as he was, in his performances, which still contained all the vigour and excitement he was renowned for… He must have known this tour was probably his swan song but never mentioned his problems and anxieties to any of us. On the contrary, he joined in our fun and games and the usual nonsense associated with travelling, with all his usual good-natured enthusiasm.
“The final gig on the tour and, I believe, probably his last on this earth, was played at the Pheasant Inn, Carlisle in the North West of England. The promoter had obtained an extension to its music license until midnight, which happened to coincide with Henry’s scheduled train journey back to London for a flight connect on to the States in the morning.
“Leaving just enough time to get to the station, ‘Red’ ended his performance with a moving version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. While the band continued to play he said goodbye to each and every one of us individually and then headed towards the staircase to the exit. As my hero descended, tears were rolling down his cheeks.
“He knew that we would never meet again.” (from the notes to “Henry ‘Red’ Allen with the Alex Welsh Band“, audio CD, ‘Jazzology’ JCD-318).
Here’s Red with the Alex Welsh Band on a previous (1964) tour, playing St James Infirmary, and starting by name-checking some of his New Orleans contemporaries: