“He was the thread that connected Willie Dixon and Mark Twain”
- Joe Henry, producer of Mose Allison’s last studio recording Way Of The World
Renowned pianist, singer, and sometime trumpeter Mose Allison’s twin leanings of Blues and Jazz defy categorization. It’s a fact that has negatively impacted both his celebrity and commercial success with North American music buyers. And Mose himself added to the ambiguity by declaring that he never stopped seeing himself as a Jazz musician stating: “My definition of Jazz is music that’s felt, thought, and performed simultaneously. And that’s what I’m looking for every night”. And he immediately followed that assertion with “Good Country Blues is the basis of my thing and always be.” All in all, Mose Allison developed his own unique style of expertly mixing Country Blues, Jazz Swing, and Bebop, with shades of Classical. No mean feat to say the least.
Although he didn’t realize significant prosperity in a career spanning sixty plus years and some fifty releases, his influence wasn’t and isn’t lost on his peers. His songs have been covered by a diverse set of artists including Bonnie Raitt, John Mayall, The Who, The Clash, Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds, Elvis Costello, Robert Palmer, and Van Morrison. In fact, Morrison, (joined by fellow musicians and fans Georgie Fame and Ben Sidran), cut a full album in tribute to the man, Tell Me Something: The Songs Of Mose Allison. Among the many accolades, storied Blues songsmith Willie Dixon called him “A beautiful musician”, and Sonny Boy Williamson told him “Mose, you got a good thing goin’”. Lastly, Bonnie Raitt summed it up by saying: “I don’t know any musicians who don’t love Mose Allison. Like Ray Charles or The Staple Singers or the great Blues and Jazz artists who’ve stood the test of time, his appeal cuts across all musical boundaries”.
Make no mistake, there’s sufficient substance in Mose Allison both personally and musically to support such pronouncements. Always contending that he was going to make a living in music, Mose’s first introduction was his father’s stride piano playing at home. Although not classically trained, his father displayed an intuitive natural Kansas City based style that left quite an impression on young Mose. The musical education continued later in what could be found on the jukebox at the family owned service station in his native home – the village of Tippo Mississippi.
The story begins when Mose John Allsion was born in the Mississippi Delta on his grandfather’s farm in Tallahatchie County Mississippi, near the village of Tippo on November 11, 1927. Tippo is located inside the eastern rim of the Mississippi Delta in what was a predominantly Black corner of the U.S. cotton farming industry; about 40 miles south east of Clarksdale. His father took over ownership of the farm plus the family general store and service station. His mother, a local school teacher, set up piano lessons for Mose, (when he was five years old), and passed on a love of literature that would significantly influence his songwriting later on.
As a boy, Mose picked and chopped cotton, cut and hauled hay; and while working at the general store would steal away to the service station where he got his first taste of Blues, Boogie Woogie, and Jazz on the jukebox. He recalled that 60% of the jukebox fare was Country Blues and the remainder the big band sounds of Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey. While he loved all that he heard, he gravitated to the Blues of Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, and Big Bill Broonzy.
The sounds that Mose heard on the jukebox left a permanent imprint. Mose, tired of the formal piano lessons, decided to totally give up on them when he found he could pick out Blues and Boogie tunes by ear. He continued honing his keyboard skills citing Nat King Cole as his main influence on piano (and later as a vocal model).
In high school Allison switched to trumpet and dove so deeply into the instrument that he now considered himself primarily a trumpet player; only playing piano “now and then”. That being the case, Mose found new heroes, as he sought to emulate Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Buck Clayton (of Count Basie’s band), and Louis Armstrong. Allison was especially attracted to Armstrong’s natural improvisational skills.
After spending a year at The University Of Mississippi, (studying Chemical Engineering), Allison joined the army in 1946. Among the usual military activities, Mose played trumpet with the army band in Colorado Springs. He also took advantage of a number of opportunities to sit in with accomplished musicians, including doing so on a memorable night with Roy Eldridge. The jamming proved crucial to Allison’s budding success not only at this juncture but throughout his early career. He was grateful to the many musicians that allowed him to sit in. As a general statement, they were all very welcoming; recognizing his passion and musicianship as Mose steadily learned from the experience.
The other major benefit from his army stay – one that would have a profound effect on his on-going style and creativity both on trumpet and piano – was Mose hearing and falling in love with Bebop. Upon finishing his army stint and returning to the U. Of Mississippi (to study Economics), Mose had this to say: “I left Ole Miss as a naïve provincial, and when I returned I was a fledgling hipster. When I went back to Ole Miss after the army I had become a Bebop fanatic. Bebop was my crusade. Dizzy Gillespie was my hero, and I wrote arrangements for the dance band which were not particularly well received by the student body”.
Allison ended his full time education a second time, to take a 6 night a week job playing piano and singing in a cocktail lounge near Lake Charles Louisiana. Citing that he couldn’t express his ideas as readily on trumpet, Allison moved to piano, for all intents and purposes, on a full time basis. And, with the thought of taking advantage of all potential work possibilities, he noted that “piano players were hired before they hire trumpet players”.
Now fronting a trio, (backed by a rhythm section of bass and drums, a preferred line-up that Mose would continue to use in live performance going forward), he began branching out playing clubs in the southeast and as far north as Denver. Hearing about a thriving Jazz scene in New York it wasn’t long before Mose decided to try his luck and move there on his own in 1951. After a year of scuffling, and being left disillusioned with the lack of available work, Allison decided to return to school – this time he attended classes at Louisiana State University where he graduated in English and Philosophy.
In the next few years Allison’s style and approach started to evolve. He drew on his influences to date fusing the rural Blues of his youth with Jazz intonations coupled with an understated vocal style influenced by Percy Mayfield, Charles Brown, and his first idol, Nat King Cole. In 1956, at the age of 29, Mose pronounced himself ready to tackle the Big Apple once again.
This time circumstances proved to be more accommodating thanks to the help and guidance of saxophonist, composer, and arranger Al Cohn. Cohn, (two years Mose’s senior), provided encouragement, work, and recording dates. Specifically, Mose would go on to play as an accompanist and record with Cohn along with other celebrated saxmen like Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims. (As a sideman, Allison recorded 4 albums with Cohn and 1 with Getz).
Mose soaked up all that New York had to offer musically while the big city life had a profound effect on his songwriting. More on that later, but suffice to say that his original songs provided a forum for Mose’s Southern sensibilities and displayed acute observations of the way that the world works, (and sometimes doesn’t). With his trio, Mose played all the prestigious night spots: Birdland, The Jazz Gallery, The Half Note, and The Village Gate. His blend of downhome Blues and uptown Bop had a tendency to raise more than a few eyebrows. Unfazed, Mose told a Downbeat interviewer that “In the South I’m considered an advanced bebop type. In New York I’m considered a Country-Folk type. Actually, I don’t think I’m either. Maybe I’m a little of both”.
In 1957 Mose made his solo recording debut on the Prestige label. In what would be his first of 6 releases for Prestige, Back Country Suite (For Piano, Bass, and Drums), was met with critical acclaim. The album, conjuring up the feel of the Mississippi Delta, was primarily an instrumental recording that featured 2 vocal tracks: a cover of Mercy Dee’s “One Room Country Shack” and Mose’s own “Blues” (AKA “Young Man Blues”). Those tracks stood in stark contrast to the rest of the release in that they first brought to light Mose’s conversational tone of voice that differed greatly from Blues shouters of the day. ”Blues” also brought to bear the possibilities of a white voice artistically exploring Black material, thereby putting his own spin on the genre. On that topic, Mose would say in an interview that in sharing day to day commonalities with African Americans, he grew up unaware that whites don’t play Blues. And the white imitating Black viewpoint obviously hit a nerve with Allison because later in his career he would record “Ever Since I Stole The Blues” with the lyrics; “Well the Blues police from down in Dixieland / Tried to catch me with the goods in hand / Ever since the white boy stole the Blues”. Further on the subject, Mose noted: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Black or white. What matters is whether you’re good”.
Allison continued to include vocals on the remaining albums in Allison’s Prestige catalogue both Blues and otherwise. Mose did so reasoning “That’s what record companies wanted; they wanted songs with words”. (Noted vocal performances from this time period are Mose’s handling of Percy Mayfield’s “Lost Mind” and his re-working of Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm” depicting the rough conditions in the maximum security prison farm also known as the Mississippi State Penitentiary).
Years later when recalling his time at Prestige, Allison said that his last recording for the label, 1960’s primarily instrumental Transformation Of Hiram Brown would always hold a special place: “It didn’t get much attention, but I think it’s the best I’ve ever done as far as sustained performance and the tunes themselves are concerned”.
After a less than satisfying 2 year / 4 release stint at Columbia Records, Allison came into his own for a career defining tenure at Atlantic Records. Over the course of 14 years (’62 – ’76) and 14 releases, primarily under the guidance of Nesuhi Ertegun, the case could be made that some of his best and most memorable songs were written and recorded while at Atlantic. It was during this period that Allison started putting more emphasis on songwriting and vocals on topics that ranged from personal to worldly. Titles like “I Don’t Worry About A Thing”, “Your Mind Is On Vacation”, “If You’re Goin’ To The City”, “Stop This World”, “Don’t Forget To Smile”, “Your Molecular Structure”, “Night Club”, and “Everybody Cryin’ Mercy” all share a similarity. That is, they are plain spoken observant songs full of insight and humour delivered with a clear voice complete with an easy Blues inflection reflecting his rural Mississippi upbringing.
While he enjoyed his time at Atlantic and his relationship with Nesuhi Ertegun, he, at times, was called upon to defend his musical integrity; (a common occurrence throughout Allison’s career). Case in point was his relationship with Jerry Wexler at a time when Wex had found a successful formula of sending artists to different southern locales, (e.g. Muscle Shoals AL), and delivering hit records. Mose said: “He (Wexler) wanted me to go down to Mississippi and play with bands that Atlantic Records had down there and play more popular stuff. I didn’t want to do it. There were a lot of suggestions I didn’t take”.
Mose’s term at Atlantic ended with a 1976 release Your Mind Is On Vacation that included viable remakes from his Atlantic catalogue including the title cut. The release also reunited Mose with Al Cohn who played on the session.
Mose would leave Atlantic to record for Elektra and Blue Note among others with some fine moments including Middle Class White Boy on Elektra, (“I’m a middle class white boy just tryin’ to have some fun”). But Mose found the financial return on his recorded work so minimal that by the 90’s he decided to quit recording and devoted his time and effort to touring, (which he had been doing extensively throughout his career). And he continued to tour until 2012 when at 85 years of age decided to retire from live performances.
Mose Allison died on November 15, 2016 of natural causes at 89 years of age at home in Hilton Head S.C. He left behind a legacy and a treasure-trove of inspirational music. It could rightfully be said that wide acceptance eluded him because he didn’t appear serious enough for Jazzers and too heavy for Blues followers. I venture that in Mose’s words, his take on the subject might be:
If this life is driving
You to drink
You sit around and wondering
Just what to think
Well I got some consolation
I’ll give it to you
If I might
Well I don’t worry bout a thing
Cause I know nothings gonna be alright
You know this world is just one big
Trouble spot because
Some have plenty and
Some have not
You know I used to be trouble but I finally
Saw the light
Now I don’t worry bout a thing
Cause I know nothings gonna be alright
Don’t waste your time trying to
Be a go getter
Things will get worse before they
Get any better
You know there’s always somebody playing with
But I don’t worry about a thing
Cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright
A MOSE ALLISON PLAYLIST
- One Room Country Shack
- Lost Mind
- Parchman Farm
- Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me
- Groovin’ High
- V-8 Ford Blues
- I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
- I’m Not Talking
- Wild Man On The Loose
- I Don’t Worry About A Thing
- Your Mind Is On Vacation
- If You’re Going To The City
- Stop This World
- Don’t Forget To Smile
- Your Molecular Structure
- Night Club
- Everybody’s Crying Mercy
- Middle Class White Boy
- Top Forty
Rico Ferrara, November 2021
4 thoughts on “Mose Allison – Too Blues To Be Jazz / Too Jazz To Be Blues”
Wow, I had no idea he had recorded so extensively! A lot of stuff to try to catch up on – thanks for the road map!
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Mose in the inbox! You made it, well done. It’s a good one!
Sent from my iPhone
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Love it Ricco; thanks for the history lesson!
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Education of Mose – good read Rico – Tanks
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