Jack Allen's daughter, Linda, cautioned me before I sat down with her father.
"He hasn't picked up his horn for over a year now," she said about the venerable big band leader and trumpeter. Well, apparently no one told Jack. I handed him his horn as a possible photo opportunity, he put it to his lips, and out came an impromptu rendition of "Blueberry Hill."
It's no surprise; after nearly 80 years in the big band business, it comes second nature to the man who, at 92 years old, is now retiring. I sat down to talk with Allen, but after playing a trumpet for most of his life, Allen is somewhat hard of hearing — and the fact that I stutter, this was going to make for an interesting interview. So we had Linda stick around to help communicate.
"It makes me very sad," Allen says. The man has led the Jack Allen Big Band for the last 30-odd years. Allen is a hero of mine, not only as a musician but as a gentleman who carries himself with class and musical integrity. I'm proud to call him my friend. He played my 40th birthday party and my 50th, and if I stick around, I'll have him play my 60th.
In the late-1970's, Allen joined the Chick Edmond Big Band and took over 15 years later when Edmond handed him the reins. Out of respect, Allen didn't change the band name until 2001.
If you've ever had the pleasure of seeing Jack Allen's Big Band live, you've seen the band leader not at the podium like some stuffy maestro with a baton but playing his trumpet with one hand while conducting with the other. His feet join the party, too, as he stomps out intros and time signatures from down in the trenches with his band. According to Allen, though, he was never really excited about conducting or composing.
"I was only really interested in playing the trumpet," he says.
Allen's father — also a trumpet player — gave him a few lessons, and by age 12, he was playing church functions, parties, and events in various ensembles.
"We played Jewish weddings, Italian weddings, anything," Allen says.
His love for Tommy Dorsey's horn player, Ziggy Elman, earned Allen the nick name Ziggy Allen, and so he led The Ziggy Allen Big Band during his high school years at Franklin High School. By the time Allen was 17, he was a card-carrying union member gigging regularly in Rochester hotspots like The Swing Club on Buffalo Road, The Riviera Club on Mt. Read Boulevard, The Bartlett Club on Bartlett Street, and The Chateau on Monroe Avenue.
And there were the bigger, downtown theaters — The Temple, The Loew's Rochester, and The Palace — all of which brought in national touring acts for one-week stints. Local union musicians were always on standby in case a touring musician couldn't play. One such substitution back in 1943 got Allen on the road with The Tommy Reynolds Big Band. They toured the East Coast and Midwest with memorable one-week stands at the St. Charles Theatre and The Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans.
But of all of Allen's accomplishments, he has one that is his proudest. "The Rochester International Jazz Festival," he says without hesitation.
When pressed for advice, Allen simply emphasizes the importance of practice.
"Every day," he says. Having a tolerant wife like Marie — they've been married for 61 years — doesn't hurt either. "Isn't she wonderful," he says. His eyes twinkle when he speaks of her.
Two shows — one on August 13 at the Irondequoit Town Hall Gazebo and the other September 13 at Roger Robach Community Center — will mark the end of Jack Allen's illustrious career. He's got a lot of grandfathering to do with his three great-grandchildren. But retirement? I'm just not sure he agrees or if he even knows the meaning of the word.
"I'll still pick up a few gigs here and there," he says matter-of-factly.
And I'll be there, Jack.