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Overdue Ovation: Despite Setbacks, Allen Lowe Fights On

Cancer treatment, removal of a tumor, and COVID quarantine doesn't stop the author/musician from expanding his canon

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Allen Lowe (photo: Alan Nahigian)
Allen Lowe (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Allen Lowe never skimps on details. As a music historian, his output includes 1998’s American Pop – From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record 1893-1956, a 282-page book that was released with a companion set of no less than nine CDs crammed full of early American popular music. That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950 (2006) and Really the Blues? A Blues History 1893-1959 (2010) performed the same encyclopedic task for both of those genres, each containing a whopping 36 discs.

The author/musician has been no slouch in more recent times either. In 2020 he self-published Turn Me Loose White Man, or Appropriating Culture: How to Listen to American Music, 1900-1960 Volume 1. (Volume 2 dropped the following year.) True to form, the companion piece to this 352-page tome is a box with 30 discs of music, corresponding to the commentary in its pages. The overlapping origins of country, blues, and early jazz are brought fully into the light, making connections that few might have thought possible.

His published work alone—which combines a scholarly depth with the enthusiasm of a record collector eager to share his discoveries—makes Lowe a unique character. But this only presents half the picture of the New York native who now resides in Hamden, Connecticut, following 20 years in Portland, Maine. A saxophonist, guitarist, composer, and bandleader, he has released several albums of original music, often in the company of heavy hitters. Mental Strain at Dawn: A Modern Portrait of Louis Armstrong captures a 1992 cross-generational band at the Knitting Factory that featured trumpeter Doc Cheatham and tenor saxophonist David Murray. His three-disc Blues and the Empirical Truth (2011) includes the late trombonist Roswell Rudd, pianist Matthew Shipp (doubling on Farfisa organ), guitarist Marc Ribot, and fellow writer/pianist Lewis Porter.  

In 2021 and 2022, the Lowe canon has expanded further with two vastly different releases on the eclectic ESP-Disk’ label. Last June, East Axis—a quartet that combines Lowe on alto and tenor saxophones with pianist Shipp, bassist Kevin Ray, and drummer Gerald Cleaver—released five tracks of nuanced free improvisation under the title Cool with That. This year sees the unveiling of A Love Supine: Ascension into the Maelstrom, two discs that combine Lowe’s admiration for Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus with soloists who employ what the leader describes as “dissonance on the edge.” 

All of this comes at the end of a period in which Lowe was deeply affected not only by the COVID quarantine but also by treatment in 2019 for throat cancer and the removal of a sinus tumor a year later that left him unable to play, sleep easily, or even see clearly for a while. It’s enough to try anyone’s spirits, but Lowe is nothing if not a fighter. Anyone who’s read his regular Facebook posts knows he doesn’t mince words, whether he’s criticizing musician/author Rhiannon Giddens for calling country music “white supremacy” or defending the honor of unsung saxophonist Dave Schildkraut.

It’s clear that the same passion that results in a few online barbs also motivates Lowe to create massive musical works and documents of history that might otherwise be lost to the ether. “Allen can be cantankerous but he really knows his shit,” Marc Ribot says by phone. “And I admire him for getting the work done—getting out there and doing it.”

That Lowe’s literary efforts typically yield large-scale results comes, he’ll tell you, out of necessity. “Too much of the work in the field—in all areas, country, blues, jazz—is this highlights approach,” he explains. “While that’s okay, a lot of times it leaves out too much stuff and it doesn’t tell the true story. So my method is always to tell what is really the deeper story.”

The title Turn Me Loose White Man comes from a song (simply titled “Turn Me Loose”) that appears a few times on the accompanying CDs. It brings up several complex issues that Lowe explores throughout the book: the races of the performers, roles they portray in songs and, finally, how minstrelsy was a central force in American music. Acknowledging this means recognizing some of the more uncomfortable aspects of musical history, such as the repeated use of racial epithets in songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “I was nervous about some of that stuff,” Lowe admits. Before compiling the set, “I ran some of it by people I know and said, ‘How do you feel about this?’ I felt like as long as I put it in the context, you kind of have to deal with it because there’s so much of that in early music.”

Before clarinetist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski ever played with Lowe, he was impressed by the scope of That Devilin’ Tune. “The way he put [the book] together shows what a true melting pot that music—all of American music—really is,” he says. “Before producers stepped in and started labeling everything, everybody was checking everybody else out and playing whatever they felt like playing.”

A similar diversity carries over into the groups Lowe assembles. Peplowski, whose career might be considered more straight-ahead, fondly recalls meetups with free players like Matthew Shipp or the modern classical pianist Ursula Oppens. As proof of Lowe’s fondness for these combinations, Peplowski mentions a 2015 performance when Oppens asked the clarinetist how to improvise, minutes before they were to go on stage. “We were just weaving lines around each other and she sounded fantastic,” he recalls. “It was amazing that he got her to do that. But that’s Allen.”

The rich blend of the septet (plus a few more players on certain tracks) on A Love Supine sounds like the work of a meticulous arranger, but Lowe doesn’t look at himself that way. “I’m not an arranger so much as a transcriber of lines and sounds,” he says. A full 18 tracks cover a wide range of moods: “Name Her” touches on Ellington, with a lush tenor solo by Nicole Glover; “Tiger Rage”—despite a title very close to a trad-jazz classic—is built on the changes of “Giant Steps” and might be the first piece to ever feature a bebop banjo solo, courtesy of guitarist Ray Suhy. Hats are tipped to heroes both traditional and modern (“Pee Wee Russell Enters into Heaven,” “Monk and the Evangelist”). And it wouldn’t be an Allen Lowe release without 14 pages of liner notes. 

In those notes, he explains how the title isn’t merely another pun on a jazz classic. “Supine,” he writes, means “failing to act or protest as a result of moral weakness or indolence.” On the phone, he elaborates: “I listened to the ’50s Coltrane but the later Coltrane took me a while. Once I started to get how important that stuff was, it made me want to write a suite of pieces that say where jazz modernism is, was, and might be. The question is how you use that language and how you adapt to that language and how you make it work beside older kinds of language.”

On the phone in early September, Lowe felt “a little less pessimistic” than he did earlier in the year. Later that month, he underwent surgery to repair facial damage he incurred during radiation therapy. Now able to play the saxophone again, he posted a Facebook video of his tenor playing that proves his melodic ideas are still there. By the end of 2021, he posted, “I’ve been on a composing spree since September. It’s like a crime spree, except only musicians are harmed, and nobody cares about them.”

Peplowski sees a parallel between his friend’s illness and a musical career that has often played second fiddle to day jobs and raising a family. Lowe, he says, “has some strong willpower. He’s like the Charles Bukowski of jazz. He’s never given up. If he has a project in mind, by sheer will he gets it through and gets people to do things, for and with him.”

His two decades in Maine were a particularly dry period for Lowe, with few chances to perform. Now 67, he tempers any bitterness with wry optimism. “I think I paid for my sins by now: 15 years [working] at an insurance company, three years of cancer,” he says. “If there is a God—which I highly doubt, but that’s another story—I think I paid my penance.”

Recommended Listening

Mental Strain at Dawn: A Modern Portrait of Louis Armstrong (Stash, 1992)

Blues and the Empirical Truth (Music & Arts, 2011)

Jews & Roots (An Avant Garde of Our Own – Disconnected Works: 1980-2018) (Constant Sorrow/ESP-Disk’, 2019)

East Axis: Cool with That (ESP-Disk’, 2021)

A Love Supine: Ascension into the Maelstrom (ESP-Disk’, 2022)

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.