Jazz and blues may have a common heritage, but they diverged rather quickly into two streams. I’m a big fan of the blues, and, though I can appreciate jazz, it’s not my favorite. Sometimes I even find it hard to understand how the two are related.* But there’s someone who clearly shows that the two are closely related: Mose Allison.
Allison was born in Mississippi so maybe the blues was in his blood. He took up piano and began to make a name for himself as a jazz musician, recording with Stan Getz and others before recording his first solo album in 1957. In the beginning, the record company didn’t like him singing, but he managed to sneak in a couple of original songs and vocals on his albums. These are the tracks that made his reputation, and finally, when he was allowed to sing on all the songs on an album, it made him into a major name in blues and jazz.
Allison had a distinctive voice. It could probably be described as thin, but he used it perfectly. He had a way of flattening the notes in a way that added a plaintiveness to his tone and brought the blues come to the fore. It was also distinct because his piano playing was so deeply rooted in jazz as his vocals were part of the blues.
The result was something like “Young Man Blues**”:
Allison put out albums for five decades and his work has been covered by people like Cactus, Paul Butterfield, The Clash, Elvis Constello, The Kingston Trio, Van Morrison, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Leon Russell Hot Tuna, The Yardbirds, and Johnny Winter. His most covered song, “Parchman Farm” is blues with a real kick at the end; the final line changes your perception of the singer 180 degrees.
Allison never became a big star for two reasons. First, it’s hard to become a big star playing jazz or the blues; the genres both have relatively limited appeal. Jazz and blues artists haven’t topped the charts since the 50s. Even more of a problem was that Allison fell between the two genres. Record companies didn’t know how to market him, and fans might see him as being in one genre or another – but not the one they preferred.
Still, he has had a long history of success (including an album as recently as 2010), and he was a pioneering figure in music.
*The blues sound more like early country music to me, especially with someone like Jimmy Rodgers.
**Familiar to those who know the Who and their classic album Live at Leeds.