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Mose Allison: Goodbye There, Universe

If there was ever a year that killed more musical talent, I don’t want to know about it. Prince, Keith Emerson, Bowie, George Martin, Jimmy Haskell, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, Glenn Frey, Dan Hicks, Gato Barbieri, Merle Haggard, Bernie Worrell, Scotty Moore, Rob Wasserman, Pete Fountain, Bobby Hutcherson, John D. Loudermilk, Toots Thielemans, Pierre Boulez, Buckwheat Zydeco, Al Caiola. Two of the founding members of the Jefferson Airplane — Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson — died on the same day at the same age. And now Mose Allison. The one thing we can learn from most of these people: to live a longer life, play a musical instrument.

Everybody knows who the legends are but the legends always know who the legendary are — and Mose Allison was surely legendary. Honored in 2013 as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, he had six decades in the music business under his belt with songs covered by the Who, the Clash, the Bangles, the Yardbirds, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison (who recorded an entire album of Mose songs) and many others. I saw him perform several times. When he was 75 he was still doing over 100 shows a year, many in London. When he was 83, I thought that he’d slowed down a bit. I never thought he’d stop touring. I imagined that he’d just die on stage and be buried in whatever grand piano he was playing. Instead, he died at home, four days after his 89th birthday.

A native of Tippo, Mississippi, and definitely resembling a confederate general in later years, Mose was a commander of the keys who marshaled the forces of melody, rhyme, philosophy, voice and piano into two and three minute songs that people from any walk of life could happily surrender to. Called the Mark Twain of jazz, he would sit an audience down on his knee and sing us the facts of life — the witty, sardonic, hilarious, sweet, cynical, hopeful facts of life. Like Shakespeare writing for his contemporaries, Mose wanted to to be understood by everyone. He got across profound ideas with simple words. (There should be a Mose bible — excerpts of his lyrics — in every hotel room. If you’re feeling neglected, rejected and forsaken, there’s always one thing you can count on: “The Earth Wants You.”) More than any other artist, I’ve always thought there was the greatest imbalance between how under-known he was — by the general public — versus how much people loved him once they heard him.

A Mose Allison show always had a lot of laughs — some of his most deadly serious songs were also funny. I remember one show in war-weary 2002 (Christ, when is this country not war-weary?) when the crowd and the nation were saturated with talk of war and preparations for war and he sang ”Everybody’s crying peace on earth — just as soon as we win this war” from “Everybody’s Crying Mercy.” All of Gilly’s jazz club in Dayton, Ohio broke into applause and laughter. He never failed to give credit to other songwriters he covered. And he chose covers so perfect that you swore he wrote them — like the above-mentioned John D. Loudermilk’s “You Call It Jogging (But I Call It Running Around.”) His right foot was always furiously tapping and stomping and, when he wasn’t singing, he would be humming, ooohing and aaahing as he played — he couldn’t be contained.

I talked to him once after a show at Gilly’s. The writer of many songs about smoking, drinking and carousing credited his energy and youthfulness to not smoking, seldom drinking, riding a stationary bike at home and swimming in pools whenever possible on the road. He said he never sat down to write and the songs were fully formed in his head when they came out. “Sometimes a verse will come in 1970 and another in 1975.” He listed Bud Powell, Lenny Tristano, Thelonious Monk and Nat Cole as major influences. He was also a big fan of contemporary classical music, an influence that  showed up in the instrumental “Excursion and Interlude” which he would would often begin a set with. Everything came together on this song: the jazz ran wild, the blues poked their heads up out of their holes and fleeting shadows of modern classical music would swoop over the soundscape. It was hard-driving and exciting and usually accompanied by a local drummer and bassist.

A giant fell in the forest and musicians everywhere heard it the loudest. The uninitiated should begin with The Mose Chronicles — Live in London, Volume 1. 

Mose gets the last word:

Hello there universe

Do you know what you do to me?

You let me sample your treasure chest

Showed me how to choose the best

Then you gave me lessons in humility

Do you know what you do to me?

 

Hello there universe

Am I doin’ what you meant me to?

You let me feel your mystic light

Showed me splendors of the night

Now you got me wondering if I missed my cue

Am I doin’ what you meant me to?

I say there universe

I just thought I’d let you know

Though others doubt your good intent

Desecrate your sacrament

You can always count on me and even though

The good gets better and the bad gets worse

Hello there universe

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Randy Shields can be reached at music2hi4thehumanear@gmail.com. His writings and art are collected at RandyShields.com.

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