No one could blame my mother for not trying. As a jazz choreographer
, she was intent on reaching me before I was swallowed up in the popular mindlessness that drives today's music market. She brought me to her rehearsals when I was young. I would drag a chair to the window from the outside hall onto her dance studio and watch as she directed her class. Sometimes I would dance in place, wiggling in an obscenely cute way to the soaring of bass
, and saxophone
. Every morning as I ate breakfast there would be a new tape (and eventually CD) in the small boombox
for our kitchen; Miles Davis
, Thelonious Monk
, Ornette Coleman
, Sonny Rollins
, dozens of others. But when it came time to choose my own music, I turned down another path.
She never objected. Still, I could sense disappointment. I traded in her passionate devotion to sound, embodying some of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, for the machine-like offerings of corporate America. It's difficult to explain why I'm willing to settle for the same mediocre level of musicianship as nearly every other teenager. When I listen to jazz, I can appreciate the technical skill and emotional commitment behind it, yet I'm not interested. I prefer my repetitive soundbites to their sweeping improvosation. It's the easier choice.
Speak to me of Jackie Allen though, and I'll tell corporate pop to shove it where the sun don't shine. She has the voice of a demigoddess, something ethereal and enticing. Not only is her vocal range impressive, but also her ability to evoke texture. She glides easily between frolicsome, sultry, melancholy, mysterious, and deeply pained. She can treat her voice as insturment; strumming, plucking, blowing, and playing it as the need arises. She can transform herself into a purring lynx, a cackling macaw, a chirping cricket, anything at all. Every shape or form is open to those vocal chords. There's nothing that can more quickly grab my attention and hold it. Listening to her as I write this, I keep drifting off for minutes at a time, simply spellbound. She remains fresh and vital even after hundreds of devoted listenings.
Jackie Allen had no shortage of musical influence to guide her in childhood. Her father, Gene Allen, was a dixieland player of the tuba. Following in his footsteps, the five children all picked up brass insturments. Jackie's was the french horn, which she planned to study at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her interest was piqued, however, by the vocal department. She soon dropped the french horn for her own voice. Developing her talent under luminaries such as Les Thimmig, Richard Davis, and Joan Wildman, she was exposed to a wide variety of techniques and genres. After graduating in 1987, she moved to Milwaukee where she performed at the Wyndham Hotel with organist Melvin Rhyne (a contemporary of jazz legend Wes Montgomery) for three years. Building a reputation as an ascending star, she returned to her hometown of Chicago to form a quintet. Continuing work and popularity led to the release of her first album, Never Let Me Go. Composed of jazz standards and her own creations, it broke the top twenty of the Gavin Jazz chart for three months straight and garnered glowing reviews from such journals as Down Beat, Jazz Times, Swing Journal and the Chicago Tribune (Jazz Loft).
After her first album, Allen continued to perform throughout both the Midwest and international scene. She took a position as vocal instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music for six years, which established her as more than just a respected vocalist, but educator as well. She also served two terms as governor for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' Chicago chapter. Following her hiatus and some compliations with other artists came Which? in 1999. Kirk Silsbee summarized impressions for the New Times Los Angeles, saying, "It is as close to a perfect vocalist album as we're likely to hear this year."
A professional relationship she'd begun to form with classically trained bassist Hans Sturm bore fruit when the duet made a splash at the International Bass Festival in 1998. They gained a recording contract and invitations for two subsequent appearences. From touring with Sturm came 2000's Landscapes--Bass Meets Voice. My personal favorite of her corpus, it is filled to the brim with everything from creatively rendered jazz standards to imaginative geographic evocations. There are even a disquieting lyrical poem in the vein of the beatniks. Her most recent work has included compilations with Judy Roberts and a tribute to the male vocalists who influenced her that should be released sometime in April 2003.
I was fortunate enough to see Allen perform in Madison for our local jazz festival just after she'd released Landscapes. My mother was a long-time friend of both Allen and Sturm, so I somewhat timidly followed her backstage to talk with them. Allen was sitting on a wooden stool, sipping water and staring off into the distance. She has medium-length, goldilocks hair and a delicate face that reminds me of an amalagram of every femme fatal from the era of black and white film. When my mother greeted her, she rose with grace and hugged her warmly. I wasn't there at all, which suited me very well (no one likes to talk with drooling fanboys). They conversed rapidly of places I'd never been and people I'd never heard of. By her spoken voice, you'd never suspect Allen of being a singer. There's simply no warning of the power lying beneath her mundane Midwestern drawl. When it came time to perform, we moved back to our seats and she ascended the stage. The way the spotlight struck her, blonde hair spread over the shoulders of her dress and eyes closed, trapped the attention of the audience. She counted off, Sturm began the inventive percussion of I Want to Be Happy with the body of his bass, and she enveloped us with her voice. The feeling is indescribable.
Biography - http://jackieallen.com/presskit.html
Jazz Loft Biography - http://ssl.adhost.com/jazzloft/baskets/bios.cfm?bio=34
Liben Reviews - http://www.liben.com/Reviews4.html