JD Allen: Victory of the Underdog
After years of hard knocks and inner turmoil, JD Allen emerges with one of jazz's best and brawniest trios.
JD Allen hits unannounced. Before many of the patrons at Smalls jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village have settled into their seats, Allen unfurls an incantatory, blues-soaked melody on the tenor saxophone. Soon after, drummer Rudy Royston underscores Allen’s declarations with thunderous polyrhythms while bassist Gregg August propels the band further with his brawny basslines.
All three musicians are dressed nattily in suits and hardly break a smile—let alone take a breather for idle onstage chitchat. The nonstop hour-long set proceeds with a certain solemnity, even as the suite-like performance takes on characteristics of a hip-hop mixtape. The melodies and rhythms of originals such as “I Am I Am,” “The Pilot’s Compass” and “Sura Hinda” blend into one another abruptly. Sometimes Allen will be in the middle of a languid melody and then suddenly cut into an uptempo exercise built on a series of forceful riffs. A blistering improvisation usually follows. After the music simmers down to a low flame, the musicians leave the stage in the same manner they approached it—devoid of fanfare.
“I’m not really into the speaking aspect of performing,” the 38-year-old saxophonist tells me the morning after the gig, over breakfast in a small Turkish restaurant in the East Village. It’s late February and the air outside is frigid. “My point of view of performing is that I really want to come at it from a very gangsta aspect. It’s the ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude. … I’m going to shoot at you; I’m not going to give you a chance to walk away.”
If you simply equated Allen’s stage demeanor with his personality, you would be wrong. Solidly built with the broad, handsome face of a model and a lupine gait, he carries himself like a middleweight boxer. Yet he exudes an unassuming congeniality, especially when he flashes his inviting smile. “I’m a sweetheart,” he assures. “I’ve taught myself how to avoid situations by giving certain kinds of looks. But at heart I’m a sweetheart. Or I try to be.”
In conversation he skillfully balances restraint with revelation. He’ll come up with colorful allegories to describe his music and his perspective on life. He’ll exhibit great enthusiasm about being a working musician in New York, without skirting around life’s many difficulties and disappointments—of which he’s experienced more than a few.
Lately, though, Allen has been on an upswing. He has a sterling new disc, Victory! (Sunnyside), his third release with his trio following the critically acclaimed Shine! (2009) and I Am I Am (2008). Similar to the previous two albums, Victory! focuses on Allen’s etude-like compositions, and on the astonishing accord he’s forged with Royston and August over the past few years. Victory! also includes a short film by Mario Lathan, who’s produced similar vignettes for Jeremy Pelt and Gerald Cleaver. Featuring archival footage of live performances from Washington, D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns and New York City’s Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, the filmmaker aimed to get inside Allen’s head, rather than having him simply dole out biographical information. “He wanted something experimental,” explains Lathan. “His pieces are three to four minutes long, so we wanted to keep the film like that. The film is like the visual exclamation point for his album.”
Victory! is Allen’s most relaxed-sounding effort yet, with soulful and sensual ballads such as the title track, “The Learned Tongue,” “The Hungry Eyes” and “Stairway to the Stars.” There are also capricious moments like the spry “Fatima” and the ebullient, blues-based “Mr. Steepy.” Allen’s penchant for the dark and spectral is evident on the loose and turbulent “The Thirsty Ear,” and the hypnotic, Middle Eastern-flavored “Sura Hinda.” The 12 compositions deliberately take on the form of a sonata suite, as they’re grouped into three movements: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation.
Allen agrees that Victory! is comparatively more laidback than his previous two discs. “It has a brown feeling to it; it’s warmer,” he says. “I had over two hours’ worth of music. But this particular selection of tunes that I chose is the message that I wanted to convey. I didn’t want to tear down the house with everything. I wanted to show that I have a great sound and that I’m comfortable with me being me.”
Royston attributes the reflective nature of Victory! to the trio’s increasing maturity. “The tunes aren’t so jumpy, because we trust each other,” the drummer says. “In the beginning, we had this kind of abandonment when we played, because we really didn’t know each other’s playing that much—at least, I didn’t. We just played with the attitude of ‘Why be too particular?’ But now we’ve evolved to a point where we know when something is going to happen, so we can relax more and think more about what we’re going to do. It’s easier.”
The trio’s origin dates back to late December 2006. August had a sextet when he invited Allen to sit in at one of his gigs. Allen, in turn, showed August some of his trio music, and soon after they were rehearsing at the bassist’s Brooklyn home, trying out different drummers. August had already been playing with Royston, so he recommended him. “It was self-interest,” August admits. “I like playing with him a lot.”
“They have a commitment to the music, and they want to try to develop the sound together and individually,” Allen says, praising his trio mates. “And when you find those kinds of characters, you have to put them in your movie. That’s common sense.”
On Allen’s two pre-trio discs, In Search Of… (1999) and Pharoah’s Children (2002), he featured larger ensembles with pianists. Downsizing to a piano-less trio allowed him to obtain the rawness of rap. “I can understand why the brothers like hip-hop. With just drum and bass, it really feels like an urban sound,” Allen explains. “I think that’s what jazz and hip-hop have in common: the bass and drums. Whenever I found myself in a piano situation, at least with my music, it became more about harmony. With bass and drums, it’s more about rhythm. We still deal with harmony, but it’s more about rhythm and conversation.”
As heard at Smalls, those conversations regularly run the entire length of the set—without interruption. “JD has quite an extensive repertoire,” August says. “He never allows us to read music. At one time, I was like, ‘OK, I have to know what that tune is; I need the chart.’ But he never really wanted that. He just wanted us to go from tune to tune to tune. … His concept is to keep that flow.”
Royston refers to Allen as an “efficient melodist,” one prone to writing beautiful, memorable tunes. “They’re just long enough for you to sing them and remember them,” he says, “and you’ll want to sing them afterwards. His tunes aren’t epic, where the head is going to take a minute to play; it’s going to be over in 10 seconds.”
“They know the music,” Allen insists. “They might not know the titles, but they know, at this point, all of the songs. So I can be in the middle of a song and just start another song and they know where to go. I don’t count things off—I just say, ‘Look, man, when we work, you just gotta be ready. I don’t know what I’m going to do. And if you ain’t ready, that’s just you, because I’m going to do this.’ It’s hard work. We sweat our asses off!”
Allen says he’s accumulated over 100 original compositions. “Sometimes I might get an idea of just two bars,” he says. “That might be something that will be sitting around for five or six years. Then I’ll come back to it and work on it. Sometimes it may be something that I’d played in a solo, and I’ll work on that. It varies. But I do know that my tunes come from the titles.”
Indeed, Allen has a knack for cryptic titles that often evoke obscure novels, heroic figures and Biblical passages. He refers to the composition titles as his ministries, meaning that he hopes listeners will explore their underlying meanings on their own time. Like the titles of his previous two discs, Victory! is a personal affirmation: “I’ve dealt with homelessness and with situations where I wasn’t taking care of myself—putting things inside my body that didn’t allow me to take care of myself, mentally and physically. I had to fight those demons.
“And I conquered them,” he continues. “That’s a victory.” To reinforce his point, Allen recites scripture from Corinthians: “Thanks be to God/Who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” The titles Shine! and I Am I Am also contain biblical allusions. “Let your light shine before men/So that they know and praise God,” Allen says, this time paraphrasing Matthew 5:16.
Interestingly, Allen doesn’t consider himself a religious person. He shies away from discussing faith, he says, because “people might think that I’m a religious nut.”
He goes on: “I am a sinner. I’m good at being a sinner. There is no sin that’s better or worse than any other sin. But I’ve learned the art of being forgiving. But I’m not religious. If there’s a God that can love a man like me with the things that I’ve done, then he’s a great God. This is my opportunity to talk about it.”
JD Allen was raised in East Detroit, in an area that was once the historical black neighborhood known as Black Bottom. The oldest of three kids and named after his father, John Daniel, he grew up in a mostly fatherless home led by his mother, Shirley Ross (now Shirley Gates). Ross was once an aspiring singer who had a chance to sign with Motown, but had to put her aspirations on hold after she became pregnant with Allen. Later, she would have Allen and his two sisters, Wendy and Victoria, harmonize on vintage Motown material in hopes of starting a family singing group. “I was always flat,” Allen remembers. “My mother used to hit me in my mouth. I got tired of that and picked up an instrument.”
“I wanted them to be perfect,” Gates says. “I told them that in order to succeed in the music world, you had to practice. We practiced every day. I was really interested in my children becoming singers; I think I wanted them to live a dream that I didn’t finish.”
Incarcerated for bank robbery, Allen’s father wasn’t around much, and it wasn’t until recently that the two rekindled a relationship, after 25 years. “He took routes that he thought he had to take, given the time and situation,” Allen says. “That’s no excuse for doing something wrong, but he did it and paid his debt to society. I had prayed and said, ‘I would like to see him one day.’ Sometimes I would try to pretend he was dead, but then I would [decide] to keep positive about it. And it actually happened. It reaffirmed that what you say has a lot to do with what you want. That’s a victory.”
Allen’s first musical pursuit was to become a classical clarinetist, and he showed great promise on the instrument during middle school. But because of financial hardship, Allen’s mother had to pawn his clarinet. He was so embarrassed by the situation that he started skipping his music classes. “I didn’t want to tell my teacher what happened,” he says, “so the teacher hunted me down and found out where I was hiding. She said, ‘Look. Don’t worry about it. I got a saxophone.’”
Allen’s mother encouraged him on the saxophone, even saying that he sounded like Don Myrick, who played the memorable solo on Earth, Wind & Fire’s live version of the hit ballad “Reasons.” But, as Allen explains, the compliment came with baggage. “I remember her telling me that just to justify what had happened [with the clarinet],” he recalls. “We were in a situation where she needed the money. It’s understandable, because she had three kids. It wasn’t a lot of money, but she never got the motherfucker back.”
Jazz entered the picture when Allen was 13 and living with his grandparents. His Aunt Monica also lived with them, and she introduced him to jazz, which she referred to as “progressive music.” Allen later enrolled at Northwestern High School, whose list of alumni includes saxophonists James Carter and Alex Harding and late Motown legends Norman Whitfield, a producer and songwriter, and singer Melvin Franklin of the Temptations.
By the end of Mayor Coleman Young’s administration in 1993, crack, political corruption and economic decline had crippled Detroit. Allen saw many of his peers fall prey to the crack epidemic, either becoming strung out or going down the dangerous path of dealing. “It was a quick way to get a Mercedes-Benz without working for 20 years and waiting for a pension. Drugs were everywhere. When you walked outside of the door, brothers were selling drugs,” he remembers.
Allen was smart enough to sidestep those temptations, but he didn’t want a career in the Chrysler factory either. So he befriended other future jazz luminaries, like Ali Jackson and Carlos McKinney. “I was blessed to have met them, because I also met other cats who were getting into a lot of different things,” Allen says. “The music kind of kept me away from many of the other types of elements that were going on. I was blessed. First and foremost, it was definitely safer. It was either the horn or the bullet; I chose the horn.”
Allen originally planned to attend the University of Michigan, but opted for Hampton University in order to escape the city. “I knew, unconsciously, that if I had stayed in Michigan I would have been drawn back to Detroit,” he says. But when he began attending Hampton—on a full marching-band scholarship—he soon became disenchanted with living in Virginia, and saw many of his contemporaries advance to New York.
The saxophonist refers to the version of himself that hit the Big Apple in 1994 as a “knucklehead,” more focused on the city’s fast-paced nightlife than on nurturing his musical talents. “I had ideas but didn’t know how to implement them,” he explains. “I came a little bit too early. I wasn’t ready in terms of my horn playing, so I didn’t get a lot of work. I got some great opportunities but I didn’t have the maturity to deal with them. I was so immersed in experiencing New York and all it had to offer—all very unmusical situations. I hooked up with the vampires; I was just hanging out with the wrong crowd. I remember someone telling me that nothing good happens past 10 p.m. Well, I would start my day at 9 p.m. and end at 8 in the morning. I saw a lot of ‘nothing good.’”
Allen arrived in NYC via Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead, a program he originally didn’t audition for; he just happened to play on bassist Tassili Bond’s audition tape. Both musicians were accepted into the program, and Allen earned a spot in Carter’s band in the mid-’90s. Allen also recalls getting ceremoniously fired by Carter, along with an entire band. “Writing music—that was very important to her,” he remembers. “We had to play two tunes before she came up, and one time we played Herbie Hancock’s ‘One Finger Snap’ and we all got fired! She said, ‘I don’t want to hear that! Those standards are cool, but you got to write your own music. That’s how you’re going to get to your sound.’”
As part of yet another wave of post-Marsalis Lions, Allen also played with notables such as Cindy Blackman, George Cables and Ron Carter. Like many of his contemporaries, he didn’t get any of the lucrative record contracts that so many players of the preceding generation scored. For a while, it seemed as though Allen would get lost in the pack, and he still remembers the numerous naysayers who doubted him when he first hit New York. Some comments, he recalls, weren’t even musically related. “They said that I looked a certain way and made them afraid,” he says, laughing. “That’s my whole theory about wearing a tie now. I learned the art of wearing a tie and what it does for a person who looks like me. It puts people at ease. It’s deep. But that’s the beauty and resilience of black America. That’s what makes us a special type of people: We know how to adapt. That’s jazz, baby!”
Even after he’d established himself in New York, he would have to return to Detroit several times. Eventually, he learned that some of his problems had little to do with the surroundings; it was the war brewing inside of him. “I was running,” he admits. “And I stopped running maybe five or six years ago. I realized that wherever you run, your problems are going to follow you. So you might as well run to your problems and solve them.”
In addition to now being on more solid professional footing, Allen has in recent years strived to mend the family-related torment that affected him throughout his 20s. Says Allen, “I was constantly blaming things and situations that happened in my family for being the reasons of my failures, rather than saying, ‘JD, you got to pull yourself together and realize that this is your life.’ I was looking for an easy way out.”
A huge portion of that anger dealt with being estranged from his father’s side of the family. Even before his father landed in prison, Allen says he had little contact with his paternal grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. “Something happened in that family that hasn’t been answered, as to why there was a split like that,” he says. Through Facebook, though, Allen has been connecting with various family members on that side, which helped him piece together some personal history and, more important, resolve some inner turmoil. “I went on this journey two years back,” he says. “I went back to Detroit and found my father’s relatives. And I asked them questions about my father and grandfather. Finally, a cousin of mine said, ‘We can go back and back and back and keep asking, “Why?” But you’re going to still end up with “Why?” once you get to be beginning. So why waste your time going back? Just go forward. At this point with you being John Daniel Allen, you make the change. You break the cycle.’ That was a very pivotal point in my life.”
Allen looks at the progress he’s made, both musical and personal, as victories; still, he embraces the idea of being an underdog: “I don’t want to be the underdog where I’m not making any money, but I love the underdog. It ain’t easy but it damn sure builds character and it makes you dig deeper inside of yourself. I always want something to be working on. I always want to have a goal.”
Later, when reflecting further on the Smalls gig, the idea of work crops up in the conversation again. “Man, when we get up there, we just try to work hard,” he enthuses. “I really believe that when you come see us play, you can never say that we didn’t try. We’re not just being idle and coasting through. We’re really trying to put our all into it. Sometimes it comes off; sometimes, it doesn’t. It’s a workman’s mentality. I’m going to try to do the best job possible. That’s why the talking-onstage thing isn’t important to me.”
Originally published in June 2011