Ben Allison: Jazz musician, composer, New Havenite

Twenty-five years ago, New Haven high school student Ben Allison was sitting on the dumpsters outside Toad’s Place listening to the music inside because he wasn’t old enough to be inside. Allison, now a famous jazz musician, bass player and composer, returns to New Haven this weekend to give a concert at Yale’s Sprague Hall with the St. Luke’s and Pan Jam & Lime Steel Band and the Common Ground Ensemble.

In a phone interview Monday, Allison talked to WEEKEND about the New Haven music scene in the ’80s, salsa dance clubs before the age of big raves, the state of jazz music today, and his favorite restaurants in the Elm City.

Q: Let’s start with the basics: Are you excited for the concert tomorrow?

A: New Haven is my hometown and it’s extra exciting to play in your hometown. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been many years since I played in Sprague — 15 years, perhaps. It’s a beautiful space.

Q: As a New Haven resident and musician, what role did Yale and the School of Music play in your life?

A: I was a student at the Educational Center for the Arts and they had a special program with Yale: If you passed the theory class you could take classes at the School of Music. And I took some great 20th century music classes at Yale. One of the most important things that I got out of those classes was listening to great music I hadn’t been exposed to before.

Q: Was there a thriving music scene in New Haven in the ’80s?

A: There weren’t that many clubs. But there was the Foundry Cafe on Audubon Street. They had regular jazz there. For lack of a better term, I’ll call it fusion jazz. Fusion players like Maurice Pleasure — the bassist — regularly played there. I could never really go to Toad’s Place. I was too young to go there. But I hung out at the alleyway where I could hear the bands playing inside. I used to sit on dumpsters. I heard the famous Jaco there.

Yale also had people visit. I remember Charlie Haden — who’s one of my favorite musicians — came to Yale. There was also the Shubert, of course.

There was a great record store on Church Street called Rhymes Record. Audubon was like a little art block at the time and that’s where I would hang out. That record store was owned and run by a music nerd. Do you know Jack Black in the movie “High Fidelity”? He was like him. He was so opinionated. I once wanted to buy an ABBA record, but he just wouldn’t sell it to me. I said ‘I’ll give you 10 bucks,’ but, no, he just wouldn’t sell it to me. I used to buy a lot records, bring them back, sell them and then buy more.

Q: Where did you start performing?

A: At the time that I started playing, there was a great salsa scene, so we played at salsa clubs all up and down the East Coast — Springfield, New Haven. The players were not professional musicians — they were mostly neighborhood dads — but they played well.

My interest in jazz had already been sparked and salsa was an outgrowth of jazz, with Afro-Cuban beats. A lot of the material in salsa was good for jazz. It’s not complex but there’s a subtlety to the groove. It was a great experience playing live at clubs. These places were dance clubs that had seven or eight hundred people; it was a really big thing. This was all pre-rave, before the big dance parties.

Q: Which musicians did you listen to when you were growing up?

A: I didn’t grow up listening to jazz. I grew up listening to American folk music and European classical music. And in high school I also listened to salsa and reggae. I didn’t become aware of jazz until later. In fact it’s a funny story: I was walking down the street one day and I was thinking that there must be more music out there that I just hadn’t discovered. Then I saw a newspaper ad for a Wednesday afternoon jazz show at the YCBA. I was so excited that I even taped the show; I still have it somewhere. I don’t really know what it was, but it was a really great show. I was inspired by the music and the depth and breadth of it.

Q: Who are your jazz idols?

A: I didn’t hear any until I moved to New York, but I can say I like musicians who are also composers and band leaders. I think of those three things as closely tied together. I was never attracted to the idea of a soloist not connected to the rest of the band. As a bass player you can sometimes feel you’re in a supporting role. I really like the kinds of musicians who play with others, and bands with an even distribution of power where any particular musician could direct the music. Those tend to be people who also write their own music.

Jazz players that really turn me on? Charles Mingus, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, the great Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Herbie Nichols — anybody who is doing something personal.

Q: There’s trend today toward live broadcasts of concerts. The Met Opera set the example by live streaming all performances in movie theaters across the nation. For a genre like jazz, that depends so much on the interaction between performers and audience members, do you think live broadcasts are a threat?

A: I don’t think it’s a threat. Nothing beats live performances. That would be true of any music. What jazz suffers from today is scarcity; it’s just not easy to find. It’s regarded as a niche market. What never ceases to amaze me is how in small towns people who have never really heard anything like it before feel an affinity — they get it, love it, dig it. But it’s not easy to get out to little towns. Logistically and financially that’s really hard.

Broadcasts spread the music to people who would otherwise not hear it and inspire them to come and find it. But when people find it they’ll get fanatic. And nowadays it’s easier for them to find it using the Internet.

Q: Speaking of the Internet, can you tell us about your Think Free Project on YouTube? How did you come up with the idea of asking fans to put up their own videos performing your music?

A: I got the initial idea from a soundtrack by Trent Reznor. He asked his fan base to post short videos using music from their records as a soundtrack. I thought it was a great concept that helps you connect with your audience. The idea was to see what would happen if everybody played the same tune. Some groups had an accordion, a piano and a flute; others did it all techno, others had a rock band perform the same tune. We had some great submissions, but the technology was bad. I love the idea, so I need to find a way to do it, especially encouraging students to submit. The project is still up online.

Q: If you could change one thing about New Haven what would it be?

A: If I were to answer idealistically, I would say have more arts in the city. Practically speaking, like most people I’m in favor of better education, health services, running water, more jobs.

Q: What are you favorite restaurants in the city?

A: Restaurants — good question. We’ll probably be eating at Pepe’s tomorrow before the concert. I haven’t been there in a while, but it used to be great. Does the little burger place — Louis’ Lunch — still exist? We used to go there every Friday after school.

Q: Yeah, it’s still alive and kicking. Do you come back to New Haven a lot?

A: Not that often, but I’m starting to work on a new project. I don’t know if this is the right time to announce it, but, what the hell, I’ll do it: We’re collaborating with the New Haven Festival of Arts and Ideas for a jazz and poetry program for middle school kids. It’s going to be a collaborative work with musicians — myself and cohorts — and will include writing poetry and improvising. It’s still in the early stages, but my hope is that this will be something exciting.

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