jason berry author

Red Allen


Five years ago on a trip out west we pulled into a record store near Yellowstone Park. I needed material to feed the CD player in the rental car and found the collected hits of Gene Autry. You can’t travel the wide-open vistas into Wyoming and be a real American without cowboy songs in the car. The Gene Autry Museum is in Burbank, Calif., a far piece as they say on horseback. We were heading on to Jackson Hole. Truth be told, I needed music to brighten the mood of darkness brought on by thoughts of Dick Cheney, who got his start in Wyoming as a congressman before he learned how to trash the constitution. As I fulminated, my trophy spouse sighed: “Can we just listen to Gene?”

There are two sovereign realities for a male in midlife: obedience and spare parts. My knees are gone. I have learned to mood-pivot.

“Take me back to my boots and sad-dle” sang the old cowboy, his words a dulcet roll as we motored on, my mental plains turning to snapshots of crusty trail dudes huddled around night fires, cooking grub, mounting at first light, kicking out to thundering rhythms of cattle hooves – so much virtual reality that music delivers.

This summer past we headed west again, to New Mexico; I had Gene Autry’s hits with me – and something more in my satchel from the New Orleans canon. As we headed along the scenic highway from Albuquerque toward Santa Fe, where we would bunk in, I put on Henry “Red” Allen and His Orchestra 1935-1936 (on the Classics label 575.)

Red Allen, you ask? Why the hot trumpeter and cool vocalist who rose from Algiers to New York in the late 1920s and never, as they used to say, looked back? Why him, on the Old Pecos Trail?

The fourth cut on the CD, “Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle,” suffused the car with the gently lolling baritone of a jazz crooner who surely had a high old time recording that song from his years with the Luis Russell Orchestra during the Depression. Henry “Red” Allen was the son and namesake of the Algiers brass band leader of a century ago who was known for raiding other bands to choose top musicians for the choice jobs he always got. Old man Allen paid courtly visits to families with sick folk and when the relative died, guess who played the funeral.

Red, the gangly only child who played trumpet with a gorgeous tone, packed off to New York in the 1920s and made a name for himself as a big time jazzman with Russell, a Panamanian pianist who had gotten his start in New Orleans, too. The diaspora of early jazzmen began well before the ’29 stock market crash. Drummer Paul Barbarin in ’17, King Oliver in ’18, Armstrong in ’22. Then in ’30, Danny Barker and the great clarinetist Lorenzo Tio Jr. left. The list goes on.

Hurricane Katrina caused the second great diaspora but, if anecdotal evidence is any gauge, many more artists have come back or are still trying to relocate in a rooted community. The crash of the record industry (courtesy of the Internet and tunes so freely stolen and downloaded) means many artists sell their discs stage-side now.

New York was good to Red Allen and so he stayed. The mellow tones of Red singing “Boots and Saddle” interwoven with scat lines, as a choral refrain, that float along like silver clouds at night – oh-hooo, oh-hoooo-oh-ohhhh – are all of a piece with popular culture of the Great Depression. Blues songs chronicling the hardest times abounded; but so did movies like The Wizard of Oz, big band dances and stage show musicals that were all about diversion, entertainment and distracting ordinary people from the economic struggle. Red Allen’s take on tunes like “Treasure Island” and “Red Sails in the Sunset” on the same CD reissue have a sweet lilt to the vocal style. You can imagine that tall, Creole fellow swaying on the bandstand with the trumpet like a gentle baton as the sidemen take their turns between his vocals.

Driving under that endless blue sky as Red Allen sang, I marveled at his take on America’s myth of endless space. The voice, so magical, and the horn playing, so seamless, spark small hopes of a national promise despite the sound of porcine Wall Street banks munching our money. Sing it again, Red.