One Man's Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison BOOK review [Patti Jones]

Book Reviews
One Man's Blues: The Life and Music of Mose Allison BOOK review [Patti Jones]
Jan 31, 2000, 03:05

ONE MAN'S BLUES: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF MOSE ALLISON by Patti Jones; Quartet Books Limited, 1995

If there is a living musician whose life is tragically under-documented, it would have to be pianist, composer, and singer Mose Allison. For more than 50 years, he has been creating and performing some of the richest, most inventive, and enjoyable music in the deep tapestry of American Song. The sardonic, wry wit of his lyrics and the adventurous, inventive forms of his sound have left a pronounced mark on the work of many of his successors in the genres of rock and roll, jazz, and blues. Yet try, as I did, to get the real story on The Sage of Tippo and you would be more likely to find only scraps of evidence or footnotes in odd places, rather than any obvious source of hard information. After scouring older and current music magazines and various search matches online and coming away unfulfilled, it seemed to me that this great artist's epitaph was to be the liner notes of his albums and an entry in Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia Of Jazz. I just don't understand this; his style is firmly based in almost universally familiar jazz and blues traditions yet remains challenging, with lyrics that are always clever and often humorous. Why does Mose Allison's public profile reside so far beneath “low” when he is so plainly a cultural treasure?

Naturally, I was excited when I stumbled upon Patti Jones' book One Man's Blues: The Life andMusic of Mose Allison (Quartet Books Limited, London, 1995). Finally, someone would relate the great, untold story of this under-appreciated genius. The truth would be told, justice would be done, and the world would have a clear window into the creative soul and philosophical makeup of one of the world's most neglected artists. Vindication, at last!

Well… not quite.

An entertainment lawyer living in Boston at the time of publication, Ms. Jones had previously been a music educator as well as a choral conductor and professional singer. This book is actually her first. While she is certainly to be commended for the subject matter she has chosen as her initial venture, her noble efforts leave much to be desired.

The central problem is that she chooses to approach the subject of Mr. Allison more from her tenure as a music instructor, less from her experience as a professional musician. And far less from any background as a breathing, emotion-possessing human being. Sure, there are some very basic biographical details: born in Tippo, Mississippi in 1927; exposed to country blues via local jukeboxes; learns piano at home but initial professional experience as a trumpet player; switches back to piano upon discovery of Errol Garner and Nat King Cole; moves to New York and gains reputation as a “southern rustic”; lands deal with Prestige Records. But only occasional glimpses into his personal thoughts and feelings are seen. Famous rock stars such as Pete Townsend (it was his idea to cover Allison's “Blues”—retitled “Young Man Blues”—on The Who's seminal Live At Leeds), Bonnie Raitt and Georgie Fame (whose style is quite obviously an approximation of Allison's sound) are quoted and requoted—predictably gushing with praise—as if to somehow legitimize his long career. Although Ms. Jones has apparently interviewed Allison himself, as well as members of his family (they are all thanked in the dedication), it appears the better part of any available insight has fallen on a deaf ear and a blind eye.

Instead of the personal angle, she goes to great lengths to explain the mechanics and construction of the music itself. While this is certainly an important aspect of the story (it is, after all, a great part of what makes Allison's approach so unique), it's about as exciting to read as counting bricks. Too much of the book is given over to an exhaustive, track-by-track analysis of the artist's lengthy discography, focusing largely on the influence of complex composers Paul Hindemith and Alexander Scriabin and their use of theories such as such as “quartal harmony.” There is intense discussion of the actual nuts-and-bolts methods of notation used to incorporate their styles into his own. While this perspective certainly merits coverage (if only to further set the man apart from his contemporaries), most potential readers are more interested in learning more about Allison himself. His personal views, encounters with other important musicians, memorable performances, or perhaps some road stories are what we want. Yet this book reads like a technical manual with biographical footnotes, rather than the other way around.

If you buy a book about Richard Petty, you do it because you want to know how he ticks. What makes him feel the need to push himself with such relentless passion, blocking out the obvious dangers of his chosen profession? What exactly goes through his head and how does he feel when his racing car hits a wall? When he sees one of his competitors die in a fiery crash or when he gets to take a victory lap? You probably won't be too thrilled if you discover that two-thirds of the book is devoted to hair-splitting, finite techtalk on engine-tuning or tire performance. The author would undoubtedly benefit from a look at the writing of Peter Guralnick in his moving portraits of musicians in books like Sweet Soul Music or Lost Highway.

I walked away from this book with only slightly more of a feel for the man than what I already know from the liner notes of his records. The impression I have long had of Mose Allison is that he enjoys his private life and has never done much to court the press, but is also a spiritually deep man who keeps to himself due to mistrust of others. Or because he feels he is usually misunderstood (or both). I may be wrong about that, but Ms. Jones's book has done little to dispute (or substantiate) such a view.

People ask me questions 'bout the way I've spent my life Thirty years in showbiz           Only had one wife Limousines and swimming pools I didn't get my share But I'm not downhearted I am not downhearted I'm not downhearted But I'm getting there
(©1984 Audre Mae Music/BMI)

Indeed. This book is not likely to win you any new fans, Mose. Your definitive biography has yet to be written.

-Peter Aaron

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