SALT LAKE CITY — Before the interview begins, Carl Allen is already talking about jazz.
“You know, like all the kids of the day, I grew up listening to funk, blues, James Brown and Motown and then one day I heard this record and something really different was going on and I was curious,” the jazz drummer said in a recent interview.
Allen was in Dallas preparatory to playing a tribute with his quintet to jazz great Art Blakey on Saturday, April 6, at Salt Lake's Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, and he was in a reflective mood. “So, I bought this record for 50 cents. It was a jazz record and I spent my week’s allowance on it and I hated it,” Allen said with a laugh. After selling the record to his brother for a dollar, Allen thought he was done with jazz.
“But here’s the deal, I’ve always been very curious, it’s the foundation of my life, and I just had to figure the music out and when I did, … when I understood how the music communicated and changed, it was jazz for me from then on," he said. "This sense of curiosity has, to a great degree, governed my life.”
Allen is a composer, an educator and a historian of the craft. His concert schedule is brutal and sometimes he wonders why he works so hard.
“I’m at the point in my life where I have had to teach myself to take some time off," he said. "So I’ll take a couple of weeks off where I do nothing but lounge around in my sweats and hang out with my wife. It’s a great way for me to rejuvenate.”
One of Allen’s greatest concerns about the future of jazz is the need to build up a new base of fans. “Look, jazz is really interactive music. It requires a different set of skills to appreciate it," he said. "With 21st century media, everything is at the tip of our fingers and we want instant gratification … . Jazz isn’t like that and that’s the beauty of it. The music, the conversation we have on stage with each other changes every night, every set.”
It’s a message he pounds home every time he teaches a class or is invited to be an artist-in-residence. “I always begin by asking my students when they listen to an album, how many of them listen to it completely," he said. "Ninety percent of the students say they pretty much just listen to the cuts they’re interested in and that drives (me) crazy.”
With jazz, Allen emphasizes how essential it is to know where the music comes from, and the story that comes from the entire corpus of an album. “If you don’t understand that, if you don’t know the music, you miss the urgency that is so important in jazz," he said.
Allen knows something about the importance of understanding jazz's history — it's a lesson he learned the hard way. As a younger musician, Allen was touring Europe with jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's band, and the conversation one afternoon turned to legendary jazz saxophonist Stan Getz.
"The guys were trash talking Stan Getz — nothing big but trash talking nonetheless. Hubbard was driving and pretty soon I (joined in,)" he recalled. Hubbard, who knew Getz, listened for about 20 minutes, and then asked Allen, "When was the last time you played with Stan Getz?" Allen admitted he had never played with him.
"Hubbard leaned in close and told me to shut up, go back to my seat and don’t say another thing about Stan Getz or he’d punch me in the face. Those guys had all played with Getz and I was trying to be something and someone I wasn’t," he said. "I hadn’t earned the right to say anything."
It was a moment Allen never forgot. And now, preparing to pay tribute to bebop pioneer drummer Art Blakey in Salt Lake, it's a lesson he hopes his audience — especially the younger members — understand.
"I guess my ultimate point to this generation would be to respect the music and respect the people that came before you and allowed you into this beautiful world of jazz.”
If you go …
What: Carl Allen Quintet, "Tribute to Art Blakey"
When: Saturday, April 6, 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South
How much: $29.50 for adults, $10 for students with ID
Phone: 801-355-ARTS (2787)