New Orleans peerless line of great trumpet players stretches all the way back to the native son whose fabled horn according to legend could be heard clear across the Mississippi. Though no recorded evidence exists of his brilliance, the legend of Buddy Bolden as the original jazzman — or at the very least the beginning of the city’s long line of 3-valve kings — endures over a century later. Then there are the legends whose grand mastery is well-documented: Freddie Keppard, Joe "King" Oliver, and the greatest of them all, Louis Armstrong. And though he arrived from ‘cross the river in Algiers, Henry "Red" Allen bore the rich New Orleans trumpet standard proudly as well in that early line of contributors.
That rich New Orleans trumpet tradition lagged a bit during the development of modern jazz — or at least as far as what’s well-documented — though such often overlooked players as Melvin Lastie continued to uphold the line during the 1950s and ’60s. When Wynton Marsalis arrived on the scene with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in the 1980s he hailed the beginning of a new line of New Orleans trumpet modernists, all with at least one foot in the rich firmament that is the enduring mark of distinction of Crescent City trumpeters, no matter how advanced their eventual direction.
This succeeding generation all came from certain aspects of New Orleans music legacy tree; several as members of music families, some matriculating from the city’s exceptional arts high school the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts or NOCCA, most from the city’s signature brass and/or marching band cadres, and most touched by older mentors around the city. The latter invaluable resources including such teachers as Alvin Batiste, Edward "Kidd" Jordan, Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, Roger DIckerson, Clyde Kerr Jr., Dr. Michael White, and assorted bandleader-mentors.
One of the latest links in the New Orleans trumpet tradition continuum is Shamarr Allen, a coffee-complected 20-something man of boundless energy and enthusiasm with flowing locks, innate curiosity for a rich variety of music, and an optimistic personality that will serve him well in his pursuits. Portions of our interview with the trumpeter, conducted at his West Bank condo earlier this spring, appeared in the Players section of the May ’08 issue of Down Beat magazine.
Our conversation took place a few months after the release of Allen’s debut recording, Meet Me on Frenchman Street (Pome Music), a date which ranges from his updates of "St. James Infirmary," "Milenvurg Joy," "It’s Only a Paper Moon," and War’s anthem "The World is a Ghetto" to an original rap, the latter two hinting at future directions. The record is also notable for the selfless inclusion of cameos from two other of NOLA’s 3-valve searchers, the ubiquitous throwback Kermit Ruffins and the ambitious Irvin Mayfield. Here’s the unexpurgted conversation…
Willard Jenkins: [Remarking on a nearby coffee table photo of Shamarr’s young son proudly toting a trumpet.] How old is your son?
Shamarr Allen: Seven…
WJ: That’s another part of New Orleans’ music legacy, people pick up instruments at a young age.
SA: Music is everywhere! If you and your parents jump in the car and drive to the grocery store you’re liable to see a second line passing; or if you go eat dinner somewhere there’s gonna be a band playing, so music is always in your face. Eventually you keep seeing it so much you say ‘I want to try that.’
WJ: It seems nearly inevitable for so many youngsters around here.
SA: Pretty much… something in the water or something (laughs).
WJ: When I consider some of the timeless old songs on your first record, would it be correct to say you’re the proverbial young man with an old soul?
SA: I wouldn’t say that. Some people say that but that’s just where I was at the time I decided to record [July 2007]. I was doing a lotta stuff with [drummer] Bob French and Anthony Bennett [Treme Brass Band; Original Royal Players]; that music was to pay homage to a lot of the people that opened doors for me. Right now I’m working on a new record that’s totally different from [Meet Me on Frenchman Street].
WJ: What’s different about it?
SA: It’s more about now, more me and who I actually am today. It’s gonna be the rebirth of Shamarr! I don’t want to be limited. I don’t want somebody to say ‘well Shamarr Allen, he’s a traditional jazz trumpeter…’ I want them to say ‘I saw Shamarr play country music over here with this band, I saw him playing jazz over there, I saw him playing straight ahead over here, I saw him playing funk over there…’ I don’t want to be limited, and that’s what happens to a lot of people out here.
WJ: Do a lot of musicians down here in New Orleans get pigeonholed like that?
SA: Yeah, pretty much… It’s not a bad thing if it’s working for you, but if that’s not really what you’re focused on doing then it could be a pigeonhole.
WJ: It’s interesting that you would invite folks like Kermit and Irvin on your record, musicians who some folks might view as your competition.
SA: I don’t look at them as competition. [Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield] are older than me and along the way they taught me a lot. When I was about 12 we started a brass band and Kermit Ruffins used to come down and teach us songs like everyday after school. He was living further uptown closer to Canal Street in the 6th ward and we were staying way down in the Lower Ninth Ward. We’d call him and he’d jump in his truck and come down to show us songs. So I really don’t look at [Ruffins and Mayfield] as competition, I look at it as my paying respect to the people who showed me so much along the way.
WJ: There’s such a long tradition here of older musicians nurturing and mentoring young musicians. Who were some of your other mentors?
SA: Aw man, there are so many of them — Tuba Fats, [trumpeter] Leroy Jones, [saxophonist] Tim Greene, Joe Terragano… I don’t want to forget anybody because I was always playing with older people so I always listen and learn, even to this day. You can never learn everything there is to know, somebody can always teach you something. My first inspiration was my father Keith Allen, but my first teacher was Mrs. Yvette Best. She’s a flutist who used to play in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and is responsible for a lot of my growth. Mr. WIlbert Solomon taught me in high school and gave me five dollar music lessons just because he thought I had talent. He had me practicing out of the Arban book and made sure my technique was tight.
WJ: How would you say the tutelage of older traditional musicians like Bob French assisted you in developing the other sides of your music?
SA: I always say you have to dig into the past in order to push the future onward. Bob French’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band has been around forever and it’s more of a historical thing for me to be able to play with those guys; more of an honor and a privelege than anything. I’ve been playing with Bob for over a year now and being in that band I’ve learned so much about the traditional music.
WJ: What have you learned about the traditional music as far as expressing yourself on your horn?
SA: One thing Bob always tells me is ‘man, you don’t have to play so many notes when you’re playing.’ It’s like a whole different style of music that you have to learn; you can’t go to school and learn it you have to actually have on-the-job training.
WJ: At that Battle of the Bands with Kermit Ruffins at Ray’s Boom Boom Room the Sunday prior to Mardi Gras Day, shortly after I walked in ya’ll immediately struck up "A Night in Tunisia" with a wicked hit of funk, which immediately showed me something beyond what I’d heard on "Meet Me on Frenchman Street." Is that the kind of thing you’re working on for your next record?
SA: I actually did something that few bands do; when you look at brass bands people say ‘well brass bands are brass bands, you can get anyone and all of them play the same stuff.’ But I’ve actually recorded "A Night in Tunisia" with the Soul Rebels Brass Band — that was the first thing I recorded for the new record — and I’ve also recorded a few new tracks with my own band. But that arrangement of "A Night in Tunisia" is different from any version you’ve ever heard, it has hip hop lyrics and it’s real, real funky but the musical content is still there and it’s still real tight. The music is there before anything else; the rest is lagniappe [New Orleanian expression for icing on the cake, a little something extra or an unexpected treat].
WJ: So if Dizzy were to have walked in that room he’d have enjoyed it?
SA: Dizzy would love it; if Dizzy were alive today that’s the way he’d [play "A Night in Tunisia"].
WJ: Talk about your band The Underdawgs.
SA: The majority of The Underdawgs are the same people in my jazz band; so today you might see us in suits going to a jazz gig and tomorrow we might have on jeans and t-shirts doing a funk gig. When I left Rebirth that was the first thing I started playing is hard funk.
[Editor’s note: One musical element peculiar to New Orleans is that funk bands are not purely rhythm instrument-based units; they are often driven by those same horns that may show up one day improvising and the next day leading a second line down Louisiana Avenue.]
SA: I started really digging into [hard funk] and listening to all kind of people… Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone… And that’s how the band name came about, from one of Sly’s songs "The Underdog." Playing music around the city it’s kinda like I’m the underdog of everything, never had nothing handed to me. I didn’t have an extensive family history in the music, it’s like I’m just coming from nowhere. The attitude was like ‘we’re not going to take him seriously because he doesn’t have the family [music] history and he’s coming from all the way downtown in the Lower Ninth Ward…’ where everybody else who plays music comes from another area… Treme, that’s where they think the music is supposed to come from… and that’s where the majority of the music has come from. There’s always something that you can learn, I want to always dig into something that I’ve never done before.
WJ: What role did your brass band experiences play in your musical evolution?
SA: It helped me a lot with entertaining, like being able to entertain people and not just stand in one place and play. It’s given me a part of my playing that you can’t get from anywhere else because before I actually started learning the music I was playing with brass bands and it’s more of what you feel and not what you’ve learned when you play [with brass bands]; it’s more of what you feel on the inside. That particular music taught me that.
WJ: Which brass bands have you played in?
SA: I’ve played recently with the Rebirth Brass Band for 6 years before I ventured off and started doing my own thing. I’ve played with the Original Royal Players Brass Band, the Treme Brass Band, the Soul Rebels — I played trombone with the Soul Rebels — the Little Rascals Brass Band… pretty much all of them. I still play off and on with the Hot 8 Brass Band.
WJ: How do you find people respond to New Orleans brass bands outside the context of the city?
SA: They love it! There are places where you have to do 2 and 3 shows because there’s not enough space to hold all the people who want to experience that music. A lot of people think ‘oh this is just something that goes on in New Orleans…’, but there’s actually a [global] market for brass band music.
WJ: Do you find brass band music being more accepted now as concert music?
SA: Yes, from particular bands like the Hot 8, Soul Rebels, Rebirth, Dirty Dozen… they’ve been touring this music for years.
WJ: There’s a couple of ways of looking at brass band music — there’s the fun factor, Second Line kinda street music, then there’s what some might refer to as the "serious" music factor for staged performances. In your work with the brass bands where does your experience fall in that equation?
SA: The serious music factor? That’s a sticky question because certain bands take it seriously; like certain bands practice and practice and you can tell when you hear them, but certain other bands don’t [practice much] so everybody doesn’t take it seriously. Some people are content with being able to pay their bills and when you listen to certain [brass] bands you can hear that.
WJ: That’s almost a correlation to what I’ve heard is a complaint from New Orleans grade school music educators that they can’t get their marching band musicians to get serious about music beyond being able to be proficient enough to march stylishly in the Mardi Gras parades.
SA: I don’t think it’s actually because of the students, it’s like [they’re] becoming a product of their own environment. If you’re going to a school that has a marching band and that band is only doing that particular thing and there’s nothing else to look forward to as far as a jazz band or concert ensemble [in school] or anything like that, and you’re constantly around saying ‘I’m going to march in the band and I’m gonna go to band practice and learn these songs so I can march’ because everybody else around them is saying the same thing, if that’s all that you see at that present time you’re going to feel like that’s the limit. It’s not a bad thing but it can hurt you. I marched from 7th grade to 12th grade and I went to Alfred Lawless High School and became drum major my 11th and 12th grade years, then I left and went over to Sarah T. Reed and became drum major over there as well.
WJ: I understand you’re doing some teaching now yourself.
SA: Yes. My son plays the drums and he can read music but they won’t let him in the band because he’s too young. So what I’ve done is set up a program where all of the kids from 2nd grade on — they don’t let them in the band until 4th grade — all the way up to 12 or 13 years old can come out and learn music. It’s every Tuesday at the Sound Cafe on Port and Chartres Street. Any kid is invited, we do a whole demonstration for them to see which instrument they like the most and if they’re able to deal with that instrument. The last session I did had about 15 kids that didn’t have instruments, some of them were 5, 6… different ages, and I took it upon myself to make sure that they had instruments; I bought a lot of them brand new instruments and the Threadheads helped. [The Threadheads] are a bunch of friends that come down to jazzfest every year and throw a big party. [Editor’s note: read about the Threadheads on their My Space page.] This year they had a fest for kids, so they collected money and all the kids that go to Music Clinic got to go to jazzfest for free.
WJ: Here’s the inevitable question: How was your life affected by the storm?
SA: Katrina was a major setback — or a minor setback for a major comeback. The storm kinda put the eye on the city and a lot of the things that have been going on around the city, like the corruption… the good stuff and the bad stuff, which all needed to be seen. It affected me in a lotta ways. My parents just moved back here last year; they were in Oklahoma. We were spread out — my son was in Houston, I was working in Atlanta producing some hip hop tracks… everybody was just scattered all over the place. But now everybody’s back, everybody’s getting settled.
At the time of Katrina I was living in the Lower Ninth Ward directly in front of the levee breach. When we got home [after the storm], both our houses were empty lots — the houses were totally washed away. The porches were still there but everything else was gone. I had an Oldsmobile that was smashed and I had a Pinto and that car was just up in the air. We had evacuated about two days before the storm. My dad didn’t want to leave. He was like ‘man I’ve left two times already this year, I’m not gonna keep leaving, ain’t nothing gonna happen.’ I’ve got a lotta respect for my dad but it took so much for me to get him to leave.
I wasn’t gonna leave at first, I said to myself the water is just gonna get high because in past years’ storms passed and all the kids would just go to the wall overlooking the levee and look over and see the water is higher than your house. We would just go over there and watch the water and fish off the levee. But when you look at it now we say we’re lucky. I really didn’t want to leave but I saw the storm coming from a different way than all the rest of them. It still didn’t hit us directly.
WJ: So everybody in your family decided to come back home as opposed to those who have since relocated elsewhere.
SA: Because they know I’m not leaving [New Orleans], my brother is 11 and he wants to be a musician… he plays the guitar. I wanted him to be here to learn the music because playing here gives you something different from playing anywhere else in the world. No one can tell you what it is, you can’t really explain it. Musicians from here that have played around the city and dealt with the music and performed elsewhere… even if they don’t know [New Orleans] music people might think they know the music. If you take somebody from elsewhere, say New York, and they come down and try to play in a brass band or a traditional jazz band here, you could actualy hear the difference in the sound of what they’re doing.
WJ: So you’re confiming that there’s something about being here in New Olreans that you can’t get musically anywhere else.
SA: Yep, but I can’t put my finger on it. I guess it’s just the fact that everywhere you go [in New Orleans] there’s music; turn on the TV and you see music playing on local cable access; drive down Canal Street and bands are playing… music is just everywhere around here. Every night of the week you can find some kind of music somewhere. [Editor’s note: an excellent barometer of that is WWOZ’s "Live Wire" music performance listings, which run throughout the day at the top of each odd hour. Go to www.wwoz.org and see what I mean. For a city whose post-Katrina population is still under 300K (down from just over 350K pre-storm), the sheer number of nightly performances by a wide variety of exceptional resident musicians and bands is extremely impressive… and heartening if you’re on your way down here.]
WJ: So even though you were doing some studio things in Atlanta it was always a matter of you coming back?
SA: For awhile I was like ‘man I’m not coming back, I’m not gonna deal with that stuff down there…, my family is safe, everybody is alright… we might be scattered but everybody’s alright and I don’t want to go back to the city while it’s [devestated]…’ But then I thought about it and I was like everything that I’ve built so far has been because of the city, everything that I have gotten has been because of coming from New Orleans. I took it upon myuself to say the city needs me.
A lot of people come to New Orleans for the conventions, but it’s the food and the music that people really come for. Recovery is a slow process but it’s coming back, and it’s not because of the city that it’s coming back, it’s because of individuals who’ve said ‘I’m going back, I’m going to build my house and that’s it. They don’t have to give me no Road Home money, I’m going to just do it myself.’ That’s the kind of stuff that’s happening.