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Jazz At The MAC: "The Music of Bob Allen"

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by Andrew Patton on November 1, 2016

Drummer and educator Aaron Scott is starting his 2016-17 “Jazz At The MAC” Series with a special tribute to a Columbus legend. Pianist Dave Powers will be joined by Dave DeWitt on bass and Scott on drums for “The Music of Bob Allen” on Sunday, November 6th, at 3pm at the McConnell Arts Center in Worthington. Tickets are available for $20 online (click here) and $25 at the door. This program will honor the music and legacy of pianist Bob Allen, who passed away last year. Scott, Allen’s son, has organized the event to pay homage to Allen’s signature style that blended jazz and classical music, and to conjure memories of his trio performances at the Christopher Inn, Hyde Park Arlington, and other classic venues. Scott was kind enough to talk to me about his father, the show, and future “Jazz At The MAC” events:

What can you tell us about your dad?

Aaron Scott (AS): Originally from Cleveland, he came to Columbus to go to Capital University, so he’s a Cap grad. My parents met at Capital, and I’m a Cap grad. My dad was originally a classical pianist and composer. That was his dream, to be a concert pianist. But he was so good in college that he was playing all these solo gigs at the Maramor, the Neil House, and the Clock in the early 60’s that, when he graduated from college, he just never stopped. He did not go about starting a jazz trio – it just sort of happened. A big turning point in his career was in 1963 when the Christopher Inn was built and he was asked to put together a trio to play there. It was legendary in Columbus for a long time. He was there 5 nights a week from 1964 until 1984.

Back then there was a company called Kenley Players in Columbus. It was a professional theater company that used local musicians and actors but they always brought in famous people to play the leads. They did predominantly musicals. And all the famous folks that came in for Kenley shows all stayed at the Christopher Inn. They would often come down, sit in, and hang out with my dad. In addition to that, whenever George Shearing came to town, he would always stay at the Christopher and hang out with my dad. They were lifelong friends. Great pals – two blind piano players, and they were both big drinkers and practical jokers.

So there’s a lot of fond memories as a kid. I was growing up, and even though my parents were divorced, I was still running around the Christopher Inn as a kid, throughout my entire childhood, and got to bear witness to a lot of this stuff. The first time I sat in with my dad’s trio, I was about 13 years old. We played Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father” at the Christopher Inn – I was terrified. The Christopher was a big part of my dad’s legacy.

I was playing in my dad’s trio in the mid-80’s, and we were playing at the Embassy Suites Hotel. This guy came in, and we were done for the night. It was a slow Tuesday night. He said, “I’ll give you guys $100 and pay all your bar tabs if you go back and play a couple tunes for me. I’m gonna open up a restaurant in Columbus.” It was Rick Hauck, who started the Hyde Park company. The very first restaurant in the very large and successful chain of restaurants was the Old Henderson Road Hyde Park, which opened in 1989. And he heard us play and offered us a year’s contract, verbally over drinks that night. That’s how my dad got the gig at Hyde Park, and that’s how I got involved with Hyde Park. He played there until he couldn’t play anymore, almost another 20 years. So, it’s pretty unprecedented in our Columbus musical family that my dad had two 20 year runs [at local venues], which is amazing. After a number of years, we started mixing it up and having different groups at Hyde Park, and that’s how I started getting involved in booking, which led, in part, to what I do now. It all came from playing with my dad at Hyde Park.

His calling card from a playing perspective was combining classical music with well-known jazz standards and popular tunes of the day. If you go back and revisit his early records, he did a great arrangement of Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” which we will play Sunday. He also was well-known for doing medleys. He had a great love of show music. He did a medley on Jesus Christ Superstar, he did a medley on West Side Story – which, later down the road, he worked with the conductor of the Springfield Symphony, and the trio was featured with the symphony and recorded a record of my dad’s arrangement, or medley, of West Side Story tunes. He did a Chicago medley in the early 70’s. But that love of classical music really permeated throughout his arrangements, and they were very clever. And he often would play solo tunes on gigs that were very clever blends, like “All The Things You Are” and a Chopin etude. That was his identity, and that’s what people were drawn to. He also had perfect pitch and, you might say, a photographic memory of music. He would hear something one time and he could play it back for you exactly as he heard it. It was quite remarkable. In a similar way to what Dave Powers can do. He had that gift.

Dave Powers was a student of my dad’s. My dad, after he graduated from college, he lived on the East Side of Columbus all of his life – Bexley and Whitehall. Dave Powers grew up on the East Side of Columbus and studied with my dad. Michael Feinstein, the famous cabaret-style piano player from Bexley who was friends with the Gershwin family, was another student of my dad’s.

He lived in Los Angeles for a short period of time in the mid-70’s. He was heavily scouted. My dad was a real creature of comfort and he didn’t like change. But he did go to L.A. and was going to be marketed as a featured artist, both solo and with trio. He recorded some records for Rista Records, I believe, which was a division of Capitol Records. There were a couple of 45s that were released, and that’s when he recorded The Naked Piano, which was an all solo record. But subsequently he didn’t like L.A., and he didn’t like living in a hotel room, so he came back and picked up at the Christopher Inn where he left off, about a year later. He continued on, and decided that trying to go for that national thing was not for him.

This is the first concert after my dad’s death – he died a year ago August – to commemorate his legacy and his contribution to the Columbus area. I’m working on another concert to celebrate my dad’s legacy at Capital University, his alma mater, which will probably involve a variety of piano players. We are also going to start a fund, and we’re going to have a tree with a plaque planted at the university in his name. I also hope to start a scholarship fund in his name. The Capital concert and tree dedication will take place in spring or fall 2017.

Any stories you’d like to share about your dad?

AS: I’ll probably tell a couple stories at the concert, but here’s probably the most famous story. His original trio was Ray Racle on drums and Vince Evans on bass. Ray’s been dead for a very long time, but he was one of my first drum teachers. I used to take lessons from Ray at the old Coyle’s Music on High Street. I’d go in for my lesson – Ray was a heavy smoker and drinker, just like my dad was – I’d be in the practice room and Ray’s chain smoking and talking about the gig the night before with my dad. He said “Yep, we were both pretty toasty, and I couldn’t drive, so I had to ask Bob to drive.” This is a true story. So he would get the car out of the garage – the Christopher Inn was a round building – so he’d come out of the round parking garage and he’d get out on Broad Street in front of what became the original Wendy’s (Dave Thomas was an old friend of my dad’s, and was a regular at the Christopher Inn). Ray would point the car towards Bexley, and then they’d switch places, and Ray would say, “Alright Bob, a little to the left, a little to the right.” Back then, there were no cars on Broad Street at 4 o’clock in the morning, and so my dad would drive all the way to Bexley. Classic “blind leading the blind.” It happened more than once.

Dave Thomas worked my dad pretty hard. He said, “You know, $5,000 Bob, just 5 grand will get you in on the ground floor. I’m going to have this great fast food chain, and we’re going to make square hamburgers.” My dad just laughed at him and said, “You’re so full of it. This is never gonna fly.” Dave was a big drinker too. They’d hang out at the Christopher. Of course, my life would be entirely different today if my dad had coughed up 5 grand and invested in Wendy’s when he started that. It’s kind of interesting that the very first Wendy’s was across the street from the Christopher Inn. We all know what happened with Wendy’s. I’d probably be living on my own island somewhere in the Caribbean now if my dad had coughed up a few bucks! But he didn’t. As a musician, $5,000 was a helluva lot of money back then.

What can you tell us about other upcoming Jazz At The MAC shows?

AS: We’re doing three shows. The next one, on Sunday, January 29th, will be Tony Monaco on organ, Derek DiCenzo on guitar, Randy Mather on sax [and Scott on drums], which is a new working quartet that Tony and I put together. Working on tunes with that “soul-jazz” vibe that include a sax player, as opposed to the classic organ trio stuff. The final show of the year will be Bobby Floyd on piano, Derek DiCenzo on bass, me, and featuring Phil Clark on vocals. We’re going to do a mostly Sinatra program – classic tunes from the 40’s, mostly Sinatra stuff. Phil has been featured with the Jazz Arts Group on two or three shows. He did the 100 year anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. So we’ll be doing stuff like that on the last program at the MAC, on Sunday, March 26th.

JazzColumbus.com: Thanks Aaron! Here’s a classic arrangement by the Bob Allen Trio, recorded in 1968 with Vince Evans and Ray Racle:

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