May 20, 2024

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Drummer Carl Allen brings fire to MSU Jazz Studies: Video, Photos

About 30 years ago, Carl Allen was floating off the stage after playing with his idol, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Allen, one of the top drummers and educators in jazz — and a visiting artist at MSU this week — was in awe of Gillespie’s superhuman gifts.

“I just said, ‘That was unbelievable, Dizzy,’” Allen recalled. “He had every right to say, ‘Yeah, I know,’ but he didn’t. His response was, ‘Thanks, Carl, but there’s another level.’ I’m looking around the corner, thinking, ‘Where’s this other level?’”

After over 200 recordings and countless gigs with greats like Benny Golson, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Lena Horne, Allen is still looking for the next level. When he performs with MSU Jazz Octets Friday, after a week of teaching and workshops, he’ll have a phalanx of young recruits to join him in the search.

Allen is plenty busy in his new post as endowed chair of jazz studies at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, But he didn’t want to pass up the chance to work with students in a program led by his friend of 30 years, bassist and Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker.

“At MSU, it’s always a bit different,” Allen said. “Rodney has one of the best programs anywhere, and because of that, the level of expectation is very high, which I welcome.”

Allen’s rhythmic power seems to be fueled from a white-hot core, in the tradition of his incandescent idols, Elvin Jones and Art Blakey — a primal force to which he gives endless nuance and fluidity, honed by decades of close study and devotion to those that came before him. This week, he will work with students on some of his own compositions, arranged by MSU Professors of Jazz Diego Rivera, Xavier Davis, Michael Dease and others.

“I’m really looking forward to hearing fresh arrangements of my own tunes,” Allen said.

He will likely probably the professors themselves into active duty at Friday’s concert.

“They may not know it yet, but I’m going to bring them out. They can’t just sit out there looking cute,” he warned.

What does Allen expect from a few days’ work?

“I expect to hear growth,” he said. “Those kids are hungry, they are serious and they respect the music.”

Allen treasures the “instructions” he got from his own jazz mentors. “Art Blakey told me that too many people have made too many sacrifices for us to disrespect this music,” Allen said. “Tell them the truth, don’t dumb down the music and keep a high standard.”

Carl Allen, William D. and Mary Grant/Endowed Professor of Jazz Studies

He takes a compassionate but firm tone with students and often finds that he gets just as much back from them.

“What’s really fascinating to me is the lessons I learn from younger people,” he said. “It’s a cyclical process.”

As a drummer, Allen works and thrives best at the center of a group of musicians he can see, feel and hear from up close. He comes to MSU with a renewed sense of mission, energized by the return to live concerts and in-person classes.

“It’s an amazing thing to be back playing with other people,” he said. “Music aside, we don’t grow in isolation. We grow in community. For myself, and a lot of my friends, many of us have a renewed sense of appreciation, not just for the music, but for the opportunity, for the audiences, everything that goes into making these things possible.”

Besides his university duties and guest shots like this week’s MSU gig, Allen has lost several other irons in the fire, as usual. He played a gig last Monday with Whitaker, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, saxophonist Tia Fuller and trombonist Mitch Butler, in a project he calls the Jazz Professors (not to be confused with the MSU Professors of Jazz). He hopes to bring the super-group of player-educators to schools and universities around the country.

Another project, Full Circle, pairs established musicians like Allen with younger ones like a former MSU bass student, Liany Matteo.

“I sometimes create these projects just to have an excuse to play with people I love playing with,” he said.

He doesn’t take that for granted, especially after the past year and a half.

“Even in the darkest hours, there are always blessings. We’ve been given a gift — the gift of time — that allowed many of us to push the ‘pause’ button,” he said. “But I don’t really want that gift again.”

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