jazz

Mose Allison

Apart from Wagner, of all the music that has embedded itself in my mind and my soul, perhaps none had a deeper grip than that of Mose Allison. Born on a cotton farm in northwest Mississippi in 1927, he was a country boy who experienced and was shaped by the Depression years in the Midwest. Perhaps he resonated with me so much because our farm was a few hundred miles north in Nebraska. Whatever, he got me deep down. Country boy with jazz infusion.

I was 16 when I first heard Mose’s music in 1961, on the school bus on the way to Bushy Park School, the first dedicated American high school in London. On the 45-minute bus ride from our pickup point in Ealing, as I'd be trying to remember a few more lines of a Shakespearean sonnet or finish other homework, Cam and Tom, two fellow students, would be harmonizing on "Young Man" or "Parchman Farm." Cam and Tom both went on to study at Ealing Technical College - I went off to the University of Pennsylvania, but came back to London from Philadelphia every summer vacation. We’d all hang out with the Ealing crowd, including Pete Townshend (the Who) and Michael English, an artist best known for his posters for the UFO Club as Hapshash and the Coloured Coat. We'd go to the Flamingo Club in Wardour Street in Soho for the all-nighter sessions where Georgie Fame sang his rocking version of Parchman Farm and other Mose favorites.

Cam's girlfriend Marika also studied at Ealing and they invited me to join them in Formentera, then a sleepy little island south of Ibiza, where we stayed in a pension called the Fonda Pepe. My accommodation was a converted pig sty on the nearby road. We’d hang out on the Mitjorn beach during the day and at La Tortuga, a nearby bar run by an American called Don, in the evening. Don had all the Mose Allison albums up to that time and the bar resonated with his music and various jazz records. Walking back along Formentera’s dusty rocky roads at night I’d be singing ‘Young Man’ or ‘Parchman Farm’ to any hoopoes or mosquitoes that might be listening. Cam left the island and a day later Marika and I began a multi-year relationship. She was a Mose fan too, so our good times together were often accompanied by him on the turntable.

In February 1965 I headed east to India. I had purchased a small battery-powered turntable and carried with me 4 albums: Kirk’s Work, Georgie Fame Live at the Flamingo, an Egyptian dance music album and Mose Allison Sings. Music is the international language and having this music with me in by dad’s old Marine Corps duffel bag (I wore his combat jacket as well) helped to make friends wherever I went. But I was alone a lot, too. Mose kept me company and I learned the songs on that album by heart. One Room Country Shack was the song that was most compelling at that time. It describes being ‘1000 miles from nowhere’ and ‘my only worldly possession is a raggedy old eleven foot cotton sack.’ As I sat alone with my duffel bag in a shelter on the road from Abargoo to Yazd in the lunar landscape of southern Iran I shared the feeling in Mose’s plaintive wail.

In Philly I’d catch Mose at The Showboat whenever he came to town, at least once a year. It was always a bit disconcerting to hear him moaning and grunting when he played. That never ended up, thankfully, on his recordings. Thelonius Monk did the same thing when I saw him at the Five Spot, I guess some pianists need to growl the notes as they play them, maybe using their voice to stay in key.

The lyrics of Young Man are even more appropriate these days: “Nowadays, the old men got all the money, and a young man ain’t nothing in the world these days.” Mose nailed it then and all his later music did it too. ‘Middle Class White Boy’ was his sardonic take on the hippie scene. It kindly captured that moment of change in popular culture.

I saw him many years later at Ronnie Scott’s and we had a chat about the Philly scene. By then the Showboat had closed. Mose lamented the fact that a great club had shut down because the economics of a jazz club no longer worked. Hearing him at Ronnie Scott’s, with a quiet and respectful audience, was quite different to the raucous atmosphere of Philadelphia jazz clubs, where even John Coltrane had to blow extra loud to drown out the chatter.

I suppose my favourite line of all from Mose’s great repertoire of one-liners was ‘Your mind is on vacation but your mouth is working overtime.’ A lesson that I am still trying to learn many decades after I first heard it.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCpekvOkwNM&w=560&h=315]

Al Gromer Khan's Jazz Christmas

A very insightful memoir from Al Gromer Khan about his days in London - on New Year's Eve he and Mike Figgis played at Seed Restaurant...when John Lennon and Yoko Ono came in.

Chapter from Jazz Christmas by Al Gromer Khan, reproduced with kind permission of the author. Published 2011, his novella a clef captures the transition in the London scene from jazz and R&B to the alternative society and psychedelia.

‘Sam’ is Gregory Sams.

The restaurant ‘Sam’s Macrobiotic Club’ was ‘Seed Restaurant’ – the macrobiotic restaurant on Westbourne Grove that launched the natural foods movement in Britain and was the foundation for Harmony Foods, Whole Earth Foods, the Vegeburger and Green & Black’s chocolate. The date was actually New Year's Eve 1968. The author is Al Gromer Khan and ‘Fargo’ is Mike Figgis, the filmmaker.

MUSIC

No matter what anyone says, the oversize woollen jumper was invented by us, by our generation, the Flower Children. It was then carried further by German Green Party members. Almost all patrons at Sam´s Macrobiotic Club wore woollen jumpers (in bottle green and lavender blue) on New Years Eve 1967, complete with the small black holes scorched by burning hash pieces that had fallen down from joints. But if your psyche had gone somewhat wonky with acid, the proprietor of ´Sam´s´, a quiet Californian named Sam, well on the way to be a Zen master, would provide healing – or normality – with benign vegetables and organic soy-sauce. This was restaurant, Zen monastery and docto´s practice all in one, a subterranean place where guests sat cross-legged, setting standards for legions of psycho-analysts who came thirty or so years later, for us to get in touch with our inner selves. This ´inner self´ was what our musical performance was meant to enhance too.

Prepared with small cups of Mu-Tea we began ringing in the New Year. Our musical works were based on certain concepts. One was a Kafka-quotation: 'There is a point of no return let us reach it!' Or a John Cage principle; 'Go to the border but not beyond'. A third was, 'The chief gives more than he takes' (and leaves the most important notes out). This was not background music, rather an exercise in the spirit of Zen. When our performance was announced we went to the stage and started tuning up. In a few hours it would be 1968 and we were feeling ´The Source´.

You could know ´The Source´ by the fact that in playing together each player left space for the other player to develop his music. You could furthermore tell by pauses left in order for the sound to unfold and create its own momentum. Now and then short jazz phrases would be thrown in – nothing superfluous, nothing vain. What was shown was essential and you got the feeling that it couldn´t be any other way. This was good. The music flowed.

Very soon an atmosphere of detached gratitude set in. Sounds remained in space. While playing, Fargo and I looked at each other. He had a satisfied smile on his lips - this was a good day, it would be a good year. Fargo continued his ostinato with his left  hand and took a sip of MuTea with his right. ´Mu´ means eternity, man! Next, as if this was nothing special at all John Lennon and Yoko Ono stepped into the room. With a serious face Fargo nodded his head towards the table where Lennon and Ono had taken their seats. He looked at me saucer-eyed, but he didn´t smile. This was brilliant. This would be an evening the two celebrities wouldn´t be forgetting so soon. Hadn´t our music found their sublime centre just tonight? What hundreds, nay, thousands of young musicians wished for – an audition before Lennon and Ono, to be discovered, promoted and put on record, this opportunity had arisen spontaneously and without any effort on our part on the eve of 1968. We would, in all humility, demonstrate to them how to attain optimum brain function with an absolute minimum of means and show. This might be a chance of convincing Lennon that pop songs were, in fact, an outdated musical form, that they were nothing but simple pub songs, enhanced by electrified guitars. Ono, an avant-garde artist in her own right, would presumably point out the finer points of our art, the high intuitive quality in particular. We would be discreetly asked for an appointment with Apple Music at Savile Row ... a three-year contract with further options. An adequate advance sum would carry us through the first years and allow us to terminate our ignoble jobs at the jazz club in order for us to apply ourselves entirely to our art ...  I said, ´Fargo, shall we start with ´Prayer´ like we said?´ ´No, man,´ Mike replied, ´´Prayer´ is too subtle. We should really start with ‘Kafka’ A knot fastened in my solar plexus, ´I really don´t see why we should allow the listeners to influence our repertoire.´ Fargo spoke under his breath out of the corner of his mouth, ´I´m telling you ´Kafka´ is the coolest piece for the occasion! Think of the implications!´

´But ...´

´No ´but´, man. I´m not having you ruin my career with your ideological principles!´ I hissed back to him in the same hushed intense voice.

´This is not about ideology at all, man! I simply think we should continue as we had planned our performance, do ´Prayer´ and not deviate from our programme, simply on account of the fact that some famous people are sitting over there.´

´What do you mean ´famous people´, man? These are Lennon and Ono, man! ´You know vat? Zis whole thing iss beginning to get me seriously on the balls!´ In my anger my English had fallen back into German grammar and pronunciation lapses.

Fargo said, ´Then fucking well do something about it, fucking hell!´

At this point we became aware that quarrelling was counter-productive. So we retuned our instruments and started the piece proposed by Fargo. However the sounds were different now. No longer rich and sonorous, warm and expansive, they refused to bear fruit in terms of overtones. A situation had come about whereby you started thinking while performing, a situation in which you would think what you´re going to play next in order to maximise the effect. And on account of not being absorbed in the sound, you would play everything slightly faster. Squint-eyed you looked for the listener´s reaction – and you would start playing competitively.

The famous Beatle was looking about antsy, pale-faced, restless. It did not appear as if Lennon had taken any notice of the music or the musicians. It seemed that he was occupied with something else, something that seemed to absorb him entirely. If he did look in our direction he seemed to look into the middle distance above our heads, or right through us – lost in thought. Yoko Ono appeared to be talking to Lennon uninterruptedly with a restrained voice. With an impatient gesture Lennon waved the young long-haired waiter over, said a few words to him and gave him a bank note. The waiter started to move away from their table in the direction of the stage, over to where we were sitting and playing music.´Mr Lennon sends you these ten pounds and asks whether it would be okay for you to call it a day with the music. He says he can´t really concentrate on his macrobiotics.´

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