Mose Allison’s music has gotten me through a lot of tough times over the years. His songs and his voice and his piano playing ignited dreams in me as a young boy, and when I was in college, listening to the album The Word From Mose, with the song “Foolkiller,” got me to straighten up and get serious about my life. And then when I became a professional musician, he was a terrific role model for how to carry yourself in an honorable way through the shifting sands of show business.
So it was a gift to get to know him over the years and to spend some real time with him. For example, in the fall of 2000, I was his “sunglasses” guy. At the time I was producing his recordings for Blue Note, though “producing” is a bit of a misnomer. Every couple of years, when he had a batch of new songs, we would get together and talk about musicians and locations, and then I would book the cats and the studios and try to stretch the paltry budget Blue Note gave him to make it work. I think “facilitator” would be more accurate than “producer.” I basically ran interference for him.
One day I got a call from Mose. He said he was being offered a bit part in a big Hollywood production and he wanted me to check it out. It was obvious that he was not inclined to do it. “It will be two days of sitting around,” he said, “and in the end I’ll probably be cut out of the picture.” I told him I would look into it and get back. And then I got a call from the music supervisor on the film, a man named Budd Carr.
He told me that Frank Oz—Jim Henson’s former partner in the Muppets—was making a film called The Score and it featured Robert De Niro as the owner of a jazz club. It was a caper flick where De Niro was involved in a ring of thieves who were going to pull off a huge robbery (the “score” in question); the other two members of the gang were played by Marlon Brando and Edward Norton. It was going to be shot on a soundstage in Montreal, and Oz wanted Mose to appear as a performer in his fictional jazz club. Clearly he was a big fan, and having Mose on the set meant a lot to him. I called Mose back and said it didn’t sound awful.
After some back and forth, and with Mose’s wife gently encouraging him (“How can he not be in a film with Brando and De Niro?”), Mose agreed to do it. He asked that I go to Montreal with him to run interference. He didn’t want to talk to any production types, and he didn’t want to be hassled.
When we arrived on the set we were shown to our trailer, and almost immediately Oz knocked on the door. He was warm, even a little deferential, meeting one of his heroes and wanting to savor the moment. Mose, being a very private guy—as he once wrote, “the things that really matter don’t mix with idle chatter”—was polite but kept his sunglasses on.
Oz had created a spectacular jazz club in the middle of a cold warehouse, down to the matchbooks on the tables and a couple of hundred extras dressed for an elegant night out on the town. It was certainly a more beautiful venue than most clubs Mose played. But Mose wasn’t really going to play it; he was going to pretend to entertain the audience while the cameras and De Niro glided around him. Mose was not comfortable pretending, and he was clearly not looking forward to doing it. Finally the moment came when they needed him in front of the cameras, and he turned to me with a kind of resignation and handed me his sunglasses.
The whole thing took a couple of hours. Mose got through the stop and start of filming more or less intact. Later that day the production ground to a halt because, apparently, Brando refused to come out of his trailer. It was rumored that he was having a fight with Oz about a scene where he was supposed to die. He didn’t want to die. Mose couldn’t wait to get out of town.
When the film was released, it turned out that Mose had been right: His performance was mostly left on the cutting-room floor.