Mose's better blues

A trip to Long Island reveals an Allison wonderland

"I lost contact with Nesuhi [Ertegun] in the last few years, but he was a friend during those Atlantic years," Allison says. "I just walked in, and he signed me to Atlantic. I just walked in and said, 'Look, I just got released from Columbia. I was with Prestige, which was too little, then Columbia, which was too big. I'd like to talk to you guys.'" Columbia had released Allison after putting the squeeze on him to release more commercial stuff. Same old story.

This inability to fit neatly into a narrow marketing niche wreaks hell on careers. It's a corporate world of industrial music merchandising. If you're innovative or an original in the 1990s, forget about it, brother--move to France.

"I guess you gotta find somebody who has some power who's determined that you get across," says Allison, one of the last holdouts of major labels maintaining a "prestige artist" on their roster. "My daughter's havin' that same problem, just because she's got an original sound." Amy Allison, his second daughter, released a country album, The Maudlin Years, and now has her own group, The Maudlins.

If it weren't for the fact that Allison's albums are recorded like traditional jazz--that is, quickly made affairs, live in the studio with a small group--he might not have such a prolific discography. Even in the 1950s, his first deal with Prestige was for six albums in two years, for which he was paid only $250 each. But taking care of business quickly in the studio suits him fine. "Records are just shadows," he believes. "They're how you felt that day, when material was new. Albums should take no longer than two days."

Record companies also have never let Allison release instrumentals, which is why live shows remain so crucial to him. Chromatic funk aside, each song contains a mandatory piano solo, which comes from the jazz side of Mose Allison. Just where did his particular piano style come from?

"My dad played stride piano, a ragtime sort of thing, Scott Joplin-inspired, Fats Waller," he explains. "He was semi-professional--he played some jobs with a band when he was young. My dad taught himself to play by watchin' a player piano. I started taking music lessons when I was 5, but once I realized I could pick things out by ear, I refused to learn to read music. I'm not a good reader now."

When Allison moved to Smithtown in 1963, there were 13 acres of woods behind the back yard. A decade ago, development encroached. "I could go for walks in those woods," he says, as we repair to the back yard. "This is one of my favorite spots." There are four wooden chairs in a meeting circle, each with a backward slant that somehow centers one with the earth.

So, he is asked, do you want to be buried on Long Island or in Mississippi?
"I intend to be cremated," Allison says. "I'm gonna leave it up to my kids to scatter my ashes. One possibility would be the farm I was born in Mississippi. It's fallin' down, but the ruins of the old house are still there. I get down there once or twice a year."

Allison retains his Delta drawl and Southern sensibility--even after raising four children, all now in their 30s, in Smithtown; even after being married to Audre, who hails from St. Louis, for 48 years. He's one of the last blues musicians who picked cotton as a youth, and that stays forever.

"The word memes just got coined a few years ago." He refers to another of his science books, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, by Richard Dawkins. "Genes are biological, the stuff in our physical makeup that has to do with how we're born. Memes are what we pick up culturally. There are scientists who say memes is not a valid term. But I think you pick up stuff from the culture you're born and raised into. The idioms you pick up, your thinking."

"The William Faulkner of Jazz" is a cheap compliment often leveled at Allison, simply because both men hail from Mississippi. Yet they look like brothers. We tour his living room, where paintings from friends hang: cowboy etchings, a painting of blue bulls, a portrait of Albert Schweitzer. A painting of Allison done by an El Paso artist depicts him with no eyes, looking like a blind man--a blind man who sees everything. One painting was done by an artist who never saw Mose's band, but did his impression of the rhythm section just from listening to the album. "He got the drummer uncannily right."

With each shingle in place on this house, it is a monument to stability. Allison is a suburban country squire. In the garage every single garden tool, including Mose Allison's lawnmower, is perfectly hung in its place on the wall. Can this really be the residence of the Sage of Tippo? Or a staged setup at some straight friend's place? It's like discovering Miles Davis in Scarsdale, a PTA member in good standing with a golf club membership and a wife in the Daughters of the American Revolution.

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