On this, the 93rd anniversary of the birthday of the coolest man who ever lived, we celebrate with music, memories, and a big bowl of peaches for Mose.
November 11, 2020. It’s 11-11 again. 1111, a cosmic date and number believed by many to be an angelic sign. This seems to be borne out by the fact that he was born on this day, November 11 of 1927. Mose Allison. That he’s beloved among angels seems likely. A brilliantly funny, humble songwriter and jazz pianist, he’s been called the “William Faulkner of Jazz” often, though from here it seems more accurate to call Faulkner the “Mose Allison of Literature.”
He’s also called sometimes the “Mark Twain of Jazz,” which is close, but still not quite right. As a stalwart Mose-head over these decades, I know among my fellow devotees he is considered far beyond any simplistic comparisons to others. He was always on a singular pathway, and one he mapped out himself. It wasn’t the same as any other, but fused many elements essential to his spirit: songwriting, story-telling, the blues, jazz piano, singing, truth, myth, history, human nature, compassion, wisdom, rhythm and humor.
A more accurate though still imperfect epithet for Mose would be the “William Faulkner/Mark Twain/Nat King Cole/Tennessee Williams/Lightning Hopkins/Edward Hopper/Cole Porter/Buddha/Harpo Marx of Jazz.” But that is too much, and not enough.
Mose would have agreed that any accurate definition of him would require equations most humans don’t make. “The singer-songwriter Mose Allison would have been better off,” he said in an interview we did in 2007, “if he had fired the piano-playing Mose Allison.” He always felt his career had some degree of discord sewn into its hem, so that both sides of him – the bluesy singer-songwriter and the jazz pianist – would be better off without the other.
And he is probably right. But that was not Mose. He contained multitudes. He went to LSU, where he was an English major with a minor in philosophy. It all came together in his songs and records. Those musical flights of freedom he took in his piano solos during every song, mixing up the blues with Bartok, Brubeck and other secret spices, spoke of his essential soul.
Also essential to his soul was maintaining the physical parts of himself in addition to the others. This meant getting daily exercise, even when on the road, and sensible eating. “I love good, fresh fruit,” he said, “but it’s not always easy to find. You know, if anyone wanted to get me a good gift, I’d tell them to get me some peaches. A nice bag of fresh, good peaches.”
I suggested that even here (we were in Hollywood), his dream of good peaches could come true.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. Though I considered going out in search of some quality fruit for the man while he was in town, I didn’t. Since then I’ve tried not to pass up such an opportunity, like bringing peaches to Mose.
Born in Tippo, Mississippi in 1927, when Calvin Coolidge was president, Mose moved to New York in 1956, where he played with Zoot Sims and other jazz legends. Soon he assembled all the parts that became Mose. He wrote his own classic songs like “Parchman’s Farm” and “My Mind Is On Vacation,” while developing his unique takes on songs such as Willie Dixon’s “Seventh Son” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
Mose died just days past his 89th birthday, 2016, in Hilton Head, where he spent most of his time when not on the road.
He had a way of laughing at life in his songs and in the soulful levity of his solos, which started where the words ended. Always he was ingenious with his use of language for full effect. Always he’d play with words to bring us some truth wrapped with whimsy, knowing oppositions, like those which defined his essence, were effective. They mirror the human tendency to conceal our inner truths with some form of disguise.
Such as “I Don’t Worry About A Thing,” which sounds like an upbeat anthem from its title, but Mose built these like well-constructed jokes.
“And I don’t worry about a thing/Cause I know nothing’s gonna be alright.”
Or in his classic song, “Getting There,” with its refrain: “I’m not downhearted/I am not downhearted/but I’m getting there.”
It’s a form that Dylan echoed with less humor in “Not Dark Yet,” in its refrain: “It’s not dark yet/But it’s getting there.”
Sure, Dylan scholars might quarrel with that, simply because there is no source at all, just a pretty strong hunch. Bob borrowed from poet Henry Timrod and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuzsa. Why wouldn’t Bob turn to Mose?
Stealing from Mose, according to Chrissie Hynde, was a rock tradition.
“You know all the songs by The Kinks and all those bands?” she asked. “You know they’re all lifted from Mose Allison. You know that, don’t you?”
I didn’t. I do now Ray Davies, Van Morrison and Pete Townshend all have admitted it.
“Everything I have ever loved about his songs,” said Townshend, “at some point got put into one of my songs. All of it.”
But Mose borrowed too. His vocal style was a melange of idols Nat King Cole, Big Bill Broonzy, Roosevelt Sykes, Louis Jordan, and the Timpani Five. His piano playing, as mentioned, was a rich gumbo of jazz, blues and folk with Bartok, Scriabin, Bach, and Hindemith.
“Now Bach is the one I listen to more than anything else,” he said. “It’s amazing all the things he did in a diatonic scale. His harmonic mode was limited compared to what people can use now, but he was able to get an awful lot of variation within that one mode.”
He didn’t care, it seemed, about his music being borrowed. But he did recognize an imbalance, a preponderance of musicians being “over-rewarded,” as he said, for their accomplishments.
“And those people,” he said with a sly Mose smile, “accumulate a psychic debt.”
How about people, I asked, who are under-rewarded?
“Well, if you’re under-rewarded,” he said, “then you have a psychic surplus.”
I asked how you collect on that.
He laughed and said, “Well, you have to assume that you are collecting.”
Happy Birthday Mose.