Photograph © Michael Wilson (courtesy of MoseAllison.com)
It pains me that most of the lists of the honored dead of 2016 that made the rounds on television news and social media neglected to include Mose Allison, who passed on November 15th, at the age of 89. In fact, I never saw ONE! Jazz journalists made note of our loss, but otherwise, I saw nothing. This saddens me not only because he was one of my personal heroes, but also because he influenced so many other artists who have flourished in the world of popular music, and his songs have been recorded by the likes of The Who, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, The Clash, Karrin Allyson, and Diana Krall. Mose Allison’s death is a major blow … to the world at large and to the world of music.
"Seventh Son" by Willie Dixon, performed by Mose Allison
Musically, Mose was an under-rated, very skilled piano player. (Billy Childs once told me that that is often the fate of great composers and songwriters… their writing overshadows their playing.) From Tippo, Mississippi, he grew up listening to jazz and blues. At five, he was playing by ear. He studied more formally in high school, playing trumpet in the marching band, but his piano style came out of listening to Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and his major inspiration, Nat King Cole.
“Meet Me at No Special Place,” a Nat King Cole hit, performed by Mose
He graduated from Louisiana State University … with a degree in English and Philosophy. After a stint in the army, and a few years of playing nightclubs, he scored a recording deal with Prestige Records and recorded his own Back Country Suite, on which he sang and played piano and trumpet.
“Stroll” with Mose on trumpet from Back Country Suite
He went on to tour and record with the Al Cohn/Zoot Sims Quintet, Stan Getz, and Gerry Mulligan.
Al Cohn/Zoot Sims Quintet with Mose: "You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To"
All the while, he had been recording his own songs, which were notable for both their composition and their lyrics. They also displayed what became his signature blending of the Delta blues and jazz influences on which he had grown up.
"Your Mind is On Vacation," a Mose original.
Jazz writers called him “The Sage from Tippo” and the “William Faulkner of Jazz,” while Mose referred to himself as an “optimistic pessimist.”
“Everybody Cryin’ Mercy”
In 1970, The Who recorded a Mose original, “Young Man Blues,” on their Live at Leeds album and brought him a brief puff of popularity with the young rock audiences, and more money than he’d seen from anything else he’d done.
Mose Allison’s version of “Young Man Blues”
The Who’s version of “Young Man Blues”
That same year, with typical irony, Mose recorded “I Don’t Want Much” on what he called his “big band album,” Hello There, Universe.
Mose retired in 2012, at the age of 85. He had recorded over 30 albums, been nominated for a Grammy, and had some great camera time in the film, The Score, starring Robert DeNiro, Edward Norton, and Marlon Brando. He was recognized during his lifetime with the highest honor attainable in jazz; he was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2013.
Mose was the first performer I ever saw at the historic Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. I was in high school and he made a huge impression on me. I never dreamed that I would spend time with him professionally, interviewing him many times, and hanging out with him on the road. The last time I saw him was at The Pizza Express in London. I will miss him, but I'm incredibly grateful to have so many recordings. He was a much-needed voice for our times.
Toward the end of his career, he was quoted as saying, “I been getting good crowds. It only took 50 years.”