Thursday, 24 February 2011

On the outside, looking in at Henry “Red” Allen

In the early and mid ‘50s a draft card was your passport to the magical land of jazz, and I was too young to have one.  I was already hooked on the music.  I had 78 rpm records (a pathetically small collection) and my first jazz LP (Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert).  In other words, I knew nothing.  And without a draft card, my experience with live jazz was limited to looking in from outside the Metropole Cafe on Broadway.

During the baseball off-season, we’d get our sports fix by going to Knicks games, college basketball doubleheaders, and indoor track meets at Madison Square Garden, the old Garden on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th.  We’d take the Sea Beach Express from Bay Ridge, get off at Times Square and stroll up Broadway.  On the way home, we’d stroll down Broadway and invariably stop at the Metropole.

When weather permitted, they’d leave the doors open, and we’d join the cluster of tourists, deadbeats, teenagers, and deadbeat-teenagers on the sidewalk to dig the music.  I remember clarinetists Tony Parenti and Sol Yaged being the headliners, but the band I remember most clearly was Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins, J.C. Higginbotham, Marty Napoleon, and Cozy Cole (basically the same personnel as on the Bluebird CD World on a String).  If you stood real close, you could hear quite well.  You could even hear customer comments from the bar; I remember a guy constantly requesting Ride, Red, Ride.

With my sideways view of the band, I could see no Cozy Cole, just brief glimpses of Hawkins, occasional flashes of a trombone slide.  But you couldn’t miss Red Allen.

Photograph by Lee Tanner
At the time, I knew nothing of Red's greatness or place in jazz history.  I knew Higginbotham only because I had Louis Armstrong’s 1938 When the Saints Go Marching In (“Here comes Brother Higginbotham down the aisle with his trambone.  Blow it, son!”).  I knew Hawkins only because I had Hollywood Stampede with him, Vic Dickenson, Howard McGhee, et al.  I had no idea Allen and Higginbotham were old cohorts.  This was before historic reissues were abundant, so I’d never heard their fantastic records together from the 1930s.  All I knew was that with Red Allen leading the band, there was always a party going on inside, and I was on the outside.

Sometimes I’d linger, mesmerized, for a long time and my friends would go back to Brooklyn without me.  At the time it was frustrating being too young, but now, in the YouTube of my memory, Henry “Red” Allen will ride, ride forever.


  1. In 1958, you took me to Birdland to see Harry "Sweets" Edison. Also Count Basie w/ Joe Williams. My father worried that it was one of those nightclubs where shootings were an everyday event.

  2. Lee Tanner's picture of Henry Red is (because of the angle and because of the subject) quite majestic. Although he lamented occasionally that he had never gotten the attention of that other New Orleans trumpet player, Mr. Strong, Henry Red knew who he was and was delightedly secure in that knowledge. All this you can see in his pose!