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Moonlight serenade

Jack Allen's been swingin' for 72 years


It's Wednesday night. It's chilly and it's raining. Meanwhile, the Roger Robach Community Center is abuzz and warm, its dance floor flooded with dancing couples. They swing, sway, and spin together with a seasoned elegance that sadly isn't seen much anymore.

Naturally, older folks dig this scene; it's of their generation. And let's face it: They're the ones who really know how to do it. They glide effortlessly across the dance floor.

But it's gotten to the point where big band music has outlived the generation that gave it life. It's truly timeless. You have to wonder if any other 20th-century music made will weather the years as well.

For the past 25 years or so at this Charlotte Beach locale, big bands have played for hundreds of folks who come out each week to dance... and dance.

On this blustery night it's the Jack Allen Big Band driving the whole affair with a velvety, brassy charm. Though at this particular dance the group only sports 10 pieces, the sound is lush and creamy with leader and trumpeter Jack Allen's bright and beautiful horn on top.

Allen shuns the standard-issue podium, opting to sit in the trench with the other players, often playing his horn with one hand so as to conduct with the other. His instructions are rapid-fire, followed by a quick count-off with the stomp of his foot. When his lips aren't kissing his horn, they're smiling. The man's an expert operating with confidence and ease. It's a cinch. Allen's been playing for most of his 80 years.

"I started when I was about 8 years old," Allen says. "My father was a trumpet player, I had two sisters that played the piano, and a brother who played the trumpet."

Allen's dad gave him lessons and by age 12 he was playing out in various four and five-piece groups at church functions, dances, parties, and weddings.

"I'd even go on the street corner," he says. "People knew I played the trumpet. 'C'mon Jack, get your trumpet. Let's serenade these people.' And they loved it. On the corner of Portland and Council streets, there was this grocery store, and I'd play my trumpet --- just me alone or with a bunch of guys. You know, another guy would bring his clarinet and we'd play at 10, 11 o'clock at night in those days."

Amped up by the big band sounds of the day, Allen was drawn to musicians like Harry James, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Boyd Rayburn, Claude Thornhill, and Glen Gray.

He was particularly fond of Tommy Dorsey trumpeter Ziggy Elman, and it showed in his playing. It earned him the nickname with which he led The Ziggy Allen Big Band while attending 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 like The Temple, The Loews 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.

"We did shows seven days a week there," he says. "One in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night."

Allen's trumpet landed him a gig from 1951 to 1953 during the Korean War where he played in the Army Concert Band and their 20-piece dance band at Camp Kilmer in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

In basic training, however, Allen's horn got him drafted into playing reveille at 5 a.m. every morning. There, he was not a hit.

"They used to throw shoes at me," he says.

Upon his discharge Allen worked during the day as an accountant. He was also the accountant for the Rochester Musicians Union Local 66 for 35 years. But he never stopped playing.

In the late '70s he joined The Chick Edmond Big Band. Fifteen years later he would take over the group with Edmond's blessing.

"At one of the concerts, just before he went into the hospital he said 'Jack, I'd like you to take care of the band,'" Allen says. "Well, he never made it. So the band loved what I was doing and they wanted me to continue and I loved it."

Allen proudly led the band under its late leader's name for eight years before renaming it in 2001.

Today, Allen plays in assorted line-ups from three to 18 pieces. And though he doesn't write, he's got some swell charts.

"I was never interested in writing," he says simply. "I was interested in playing the trumpet."

You can catch The Jack Allen Big Band at community functions and outdoor events in the warmer weather besides his gigs at the Robach Center and The Stardust Ballroom.

As long as folks want to hear tunes like "Swanee" or "Stardust" or "In The Mood," Jack Allen will have a gig.

If not, I'm sure the neighbors near the corner of Portland and Council wouldn't mind a little moonlight serenade again after all these years.

You can catch the Jack Allen Quartet Tuesday, November 8, at The Stardust Ballroom @ The Edgerton Community Center, 41 Backus Street, 428-6769, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tix: $2. All ages.