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Karen Allen: In Love with Improvisation

Excerpt of Judy Carmichael’s interview with actress for Carmichael’s syndicated radio show Jazz Inspired

Actress Karen Allen

Actress Karen Allen is best known for her portrayal of Marion Ravenwood in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark and her reprise of that role in the most recent Indiana Jones installment, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Although Karen loves acting, she originally planned on a career in fabric design and has had her own knitting company for years, concurrent with her acting pursuits.

Karen Allen and I met aboard the intimate, elegant Silver Spirit cruise ship in South America in 2010, where she was lecturing and I was performing. When I found out she’s a jazz fan, as well as a passionate advocate for encouraging creativity, I asked if she’d sit for a conversation on my Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired radio show.

I started by asking Karen if any movie about music or musicians has ever particularly impressed her.

Karen Allen: There’s this film, which I completely fell head over heels in love with, and my son, as well, fell in love with it.

He was studying piano at the time and he stumbled upon this film called The Legend of 1900, which came and went. It didn’t get a lot of attention. But Tim Roth stars in it and he plays – I don’t want to give too much away, as I want to encourage everybody to see it-he plays a boy who’s abandoned on a cruise liner at the turn of the century. He has an innate gift for playing music. We don’t know why, but he just climbs onto a piano stool at a very young age and starts to play and becomes this extraordinary pianist and lives aboard a ship playing the piano. His whole way of experiencing music and how he relates to music is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s something people innately understand inside of themselves, but you’ve never seen it expressed this way before.

And at times he plays what’s going on in his heart – it’s just unbelievable. He plays people. There’s a moment where somebody says: “How do you compose? What inspires you?” and he starts looking around a room and he watches a person and he starts playing who that person is to him musically. And I’ve just never seen anything done like that in a film before. It’s done so beautifully and so believably and the music is fantastic throughout the film, the music is incredible.

The film centers around Jelly Roll Morton, to some extent, who comes on the ship, played by Billy Dee Williams [Note: Allen is referring to Clarence Williams III who played the role of Jelly Roll Morton in the film, though she continues to say Billy Dee Williams], comes on the ship at one point and there’s a piano duel at the center of the film between Tim Roth’s character and Billy Dee Williams’ playing Jelly Roll Morton and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, it’s incredible. And at the end of it one of the characters lights a cigarettes on the wires of the piano. And the whole film is about music and the love of music. It’s really extraordinary.

Judy Carmichael: Why do you think there aren’t more films about musicians, or jazz musicians – I’ll say jazz musicians specifically? I love to ask this of people in the movie business and I’ve asked this question before, because I know all these interesting characters in the jazz world that have fascinating lives. I am one of these people too. It seems there would be loads of possibilities for an interesting script. It would be a certain kind of film, of course. It’s not going to have a car chase. [Laughs] Why do you think there aren’t more films about something like that?

KA: I don’t know, really. I think the ones that immediately come to mind are bio-pics and they’re often about the tragic life of somebody like Billie Holiday or somebody whose life really went into a downward spiral. I’m trying to think- there must be other films about the joy of playing music. Or, you know, the other ones that come to mind are ones about people playing competitively. You know, The Competition, young piano students –

JC: That was Amy Irving and –

KA: Richard Dreyfuss.

JC: Richard Dreyfuss! I haven’t heard of that movie in a long time. Yeah, it’s interesting, because musicians are such fascinating characters.

But portraying the joy of music, that’s seldom done and it’s wonderful, as you describe it, how they captured that in The Legend of 1900. When we talked previously, you told me you’ve made a point to watch this film with your son repeatedly, and that experiencing it together was important to you.

KA: Yes.

JC: Your son plays piano. How did you get him interested? That’s always

a big question people ask me, how do they get their kids interested in piano lessons? And I now know, from knowing him a bit, how excited he is about these things and about music and film. How have you done that?

KA: Well he wanted to study the piano. He went to a school that is very, very musically oriented, it’s a Rudolf Steiner school, and all the kids start playing recorders when they’re very young, you know, like four, and then by the time they’re seven or eight they’re playing recorders in four parts- they all choose alto or soprano. So the class you go through – they have one teacher for eight years – he was with the same group of kids for ten years, so they played the recorder together for ten years, so they get actually quite extraordinarily good by the time they’re in eighth grade and have been doing this for ten years.

They’re playing complex, four-part Bach pieces, but they also, by the time they are in third grade, have to choose an orchestral instrument. So he chose cello. But he started playing the piano when he was six and he just took to it. He was quite naturally gifted on the piano and he sort of zoomed through the Suzuki thing and got onto wanting to play very complex pieces. And he fell in love with The Legend of 1900 because there’s an extraordinary Jelly Roll Morton piece in it he was dying to try to play. It was a way too advanced piece of music for him to play and although he did study it when he was maybe 12 or 13, it was a little beyond his technique at that point.

I studied piano with him. I had never studied piano, so I took lessons too so I could help him. I went ahead and started taking lessons at the same time he was taking lessons and was just stunned by how much I enjoyed playing the piano. I remember that first moment where my right hand and my left were able to do something independently, you know, together, separately, but together. Honestly, I felt a sort of ecstasy in my brain. I don’t know how else to describe it, except it was suddenly there. I had never quite had that kind of experience before. There was something about the left-brain and the right-brain or the left-hand and the right-hand being able to function where I felt a part of my brain wake up and experience extreme pleasure in a way I have a hard time articulating. It was remarkable. As I continued to play I continued to have this experience.

JC: It’s beautiful to hear you say it that way, because I do it all the time of course, but you make me appreciate it. I do feel it in my brain. There is a place that you go that wakes up, which is a lovely inspiration for people to do something like that and know they don’t have to be great to enjoy playing the piano. They don’t have to a professional.

I always tell people “It’s never too late to do it.” It’s one of the things that, I can’t think of anything else right now, but I’m sure there’s something else, but it’s one of the things we can actually do with all ten fingers doing something highly skilled at the same time. Think about that. That’s something we can do where our ten fingers are all doing something different; each one has it’s own task. It’s pretty amazing to ponder what that action is engaging in your brain.

KA: And to go from thinking – I remember thinking, one of the first pieces I was learning to play, it was a very simple Chopin piece, and I was thinking, “I can’t do this; I can’t do it; it’s too hard; I don’t know how to do it; I don’t have this much control.” And then you continue to work on it and work on it and it’s like jumping off a cliff. At some point, something in you lets go and you think, “Oh my gosh, I can do this!”

JC: I know, it’s incredible.

KA: It’s delightful.

JC: Now, you mentioned Billie Holiday. You’re a Billie Holiday fan.

KA: I have to say I fell in love with her the first time I heard her, which was probably when I was in my teens. I listened to her a lot. I still do.

JC: What about Billie is special to you?

KA: I don’t know. There’s something in her voice. I love voices. I love singing voices. I love the unusual.

JC: The actual sound of the voice?

KA: Well, yeah. I’m really drawn to some singing voices in a way that is just magical to me. They don’t have to be beautiful, in fact often I’m not drawn to what someone might describe as a beautiful singing voice, which can leave me indifferent. I love Rickie Lee Jones’s voice. I love Billie Holiday’s voice. I love Tom Waits’s voice. I love voices that embody the emotion and the story of the song, where they have a kind of authenticity to me where I really feel what’s being conveyed in the song.

I teach acting and I always have my actors choose a song. They choose a song that means something to them and I ask them to not care about whether they think they have a good voice, you know, often people I find who aren’t singers are terrified of their singing voices. It’s a very, very vulnerable thing. So when you can get a young actor to stand in front of a group of their peers and sing a song when they don’t think of themselves as a singer it’s quite amazing. What’s also amazing to me is how many of them have truly wonderful voices and they don’t know it.

JC: That’s interesting.

KA: They don’t know. Somebody said something negative to them when they were young and they’ve grown up thinking they can’t sing and the fact is, sometimes they have extraordinary voices.

JC: Singing taps right into emotion, don’t you think? Is that why you use it as an exercise for getting directly to the emotions?

KA: I want them to know that these things-these are stories. And through the singing voice you really can tell a story. And it’s a real discovery for most of them usually. It’s not dissimilar from them delivering “To be or not to be,” – you can take a song that has meaning to them and they can find a way to covey it in a similar sort of way. It’s a great challenge for them.

JC: It’s also interesting to listen to actors who deliver a line that becomes musical when they say it. When I watch my favorite actors, stage actors, in particular, I think the best are the ones who speak in a musical way. Their phrasing is musical. I wonder if your singing exercise would help in that regard.

I’ve never thought about it to this point before, but I know that there are actors who I feel speak so beautifully, that they could read the phone book and I would enjoy listening to them. You know what I’m saying? There’s a rhythm. How do you teach that kind of thing, besides teaching character? There is the skill of delivering a line in a rhythmically pleasing way. Does that make sense?

KA: Well, it does. What I try to do is help them understand and get phrasing. You know, in singing they call it phrasing, people say, “Oh, that singer has such great phrasing”. I always think it has to do with an authenticity to the way that certain actors take in and learn lines. They’re written lines, and you’re memorizing these lines the same way a singer memorizes a song. Once you’ve taken it in and learned it and you then find a way to express it.

When we speak, we think and speak simultaneously. And one of the challenges for actors or singers is, once you’ve memorized something, sometimes the thought process can get lost. The thought-feeling process gets lost; it gets separated. Because we’ve memorized it, we know the lyrics. We know the monologue. We know the speech in the scene. What we have to do, where the real creativity comes from, for me, is when you put back in the thought process and back in the feeling process to that piece of material. You have to rediscover it within yourself. And it comes out then – I always loved acting and singing when you would believe that the person was inventing it in that moment.


To listen to the entire conversation with Karen Allen, along with the music that inspired her, or to hear interviews with other notable people inspired by jazz, go to Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired web site.

Originally Published