Interview conducted by Rebecca Scholldorf
How has the blues played the center of jazz?
JD Allen: Everybody has the blues. I think the thing about it for me was trying to figure out how is it that the earlier blues artists like Sunhouse or Skip James, how were they able to play the blues without necessarily using the I-IV-V, or having it 4-bars. I think Robert Johnson codified that and made it 12. That’s why a lot of the rock and roll guys when they say they find their rock and roll. So how were the earlier artists have the blues feeling without having that form necessarily? That was my initial reason for investigating that. And what is the blues? Because it seems like an elusive thing – to me it is. Is it a blues scale? Is it a lyric? Is it a look? So I was trying to figure that out. I didn’t necessarily answer that question for myself but it made me look for it in a lot of things, not only in American things, but music all over the world. It’s something that we all share, except this part of the world is called the blues.
Do you think a stigma is placed on the blues and it’s supposed to fit certain criteria?
For the jazz musicians, you’ll find that jazz musicians especially today will play their most avant garde things on the blues form, which is weird to me. Why is that? I think it’s because the dominant 7th can take the “most pain.” It’s kinda major and minor at the same time – which is American, actually. That’s who I am! My great grandfather was Irish, and all these different things in me. It’s a melting pot. That’s what the dominant 7th chord is and that’s why it can take a lot of different things.
When you listen to earlier blues musicians, that was simplest thing to do and the easiest thing to do to reach someone. It was just something I was trying to figure out, because I need more of that in my playing. Everything you play should have the blues in it. And that doesn’t mean play a blues scale, just that feeling or wanting to connect.
Where did your CD Americana come from (and now the new CD you’re working on?)
A friend of mine wrote an article for the New York Times. He was talking about Americana and the definition of Americana had everything but the blues, which is “our” blues, which is the most American thing in the world. Why aren’t we included in that definition? There’s a reason for it! Race records, they split things. But due to the fact of the color situation, they came out with these categories. I feel like that’s Americana: blues, jazz, that’s our thing as a people.
Do you think blues is always portrayed as “sad music.” It’s only meant to go in one emotional direction rather than a range of emotions?
It goes back to this stigma. Usually someone says the blues and usually someone associates it with something that’s sad or troubling. “I have the blues” – usually that doesn’t mean a good thing! There’s a lot of funny stories in the blues, too. You listen to Jellyroll Morton play the blues. There’s a blues called “Murder Blues.” It’s the nastiest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s like as if 50cent went back into time and was singin’ the blues – X-rated lyrics - but it was the blues. It’s everywhere. I think it connects that feeling and it connects us.
For a person that is just getting into blues (listening or playing) do you have some advice for the beginners?
My advice is to find what you like and hold onto it. Find what you like with anything! Find someone you dig and find out who influenced them and then keep going back until you can find the source of it. Personally, I went through the church first and then checked out the blues. Just tried to find a common ground with that. Go find the best choir you can find in your town and find that choir. No matter what you believe, go there and listen and see what it is. Their goal is something different.
What’s your favorite stylistic point from church that you brought into your jazz playing?
My girl is Mahalia Jackson! I want to play like Mahalia Jackson – I really do! She did a version of “The Lord’s Prayer” which is amazing. I listen to her feeling, her approach, videos, and try to internalize that. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, I just want to be the spoke in the wheel. If I can be a spoke, I’m happy! I don’t need to reinvent the wheel: the wheel is perfect. Just let me be a spoke. That’s my role.
It’s interesting how you chose a vocal person for your inspiration…
I try to check out my instrument or different instrumentalist. But the idea of an instrument. The only reason I’m not singing is because I’m shy. If I wasn’t shy, I’d be up there trying to sing. That’s what the horns are for! You want to be as vocal as possible. That’s why you work on your tone – you need to listen to singers. I think the most interesting thing I came across on the blues would be Skip James. I feel like he was the Duke Ellington of blues. He had so many kinds of blues. And some things that weren’t even necessarily blues. I try to have a hungry eye and a thirsty ear to check it all out and hopefully it will seep into my playing.
What advice can you give to jazz musicians and tenor players?
You have to be a Jedi! A Jedi is like having a foot in the past, a foot in the present, and a foot in the future: all at once. We probably have the toughest job where we have so many things we have to balance. We put them together and make them work. But there is a thread in everything in all of the music that I’m trying to figure out. What could I listen to that encompasses everything? I haven’t found it, I’m looking. I’m happy to do what I do – good and bad. Meaning in the good times and bad. It’s a beautiful nightmare.