Who is Allen Lowe, and why is he doing all these projects and why have you never heard of him?
Allen Lowe grew up in Massapequa Park, New York in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He started playing saxophone in jazz groups at age 15 and had some of his first jazz experiences, as a teenager, at the legendary Lower East Side club Slugs, seeing Ornette Coleman’s band and Charles Mingus, among others. Coming of age at the end of the 1960s he also saw groups like Super Session (Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper), the Grateful Dead (at their first Central Park concert in 1967), the Mothers of Invention (at Columbia University, 1968). Not to mention Louis Armstrong at Freedomland, circa 1964. When his young band (with guitarist Joel Perry) was booked for a festival in Bedford Stuyvesant circa 1968, they turned out to be one of the opening acts for the comeback appearance of Eubie Blake.
After he dropped out of college in the middle 1970s Lowe returned to New York City, at a time when jazz was in something of an eclipse. He befriended a few veterans of the bebop era, like Al Haig, Curly Russell, Bill Triglia, Percy France, Dick Katz, Dave Schildkaut and Tommy Potter. He even spent an odd afternoon with Lenny Tristano at Tristano’s house in Jamaica Estates, became good friends with Barry Harris and Bob Neloms, got to know Jaki Byard while writing for a Boston music publication, and, in this same capacity, had some strange adventures one afternoon in Boston with Art Pepper.
Lowe had long since stopped performing, and by the time he picked up the saxophone again in the early 1980s he was living in New Haven Connecticut (by way of a brief attendance at the Yale School of Drama), where he became active in the local jazz scene with musicians like the bassist Jeff Fuller and drummer Ray Kaczynski. Originally an unreconstructed bebopper, he gradually became more and more interested in what was then known as “new music,” and began composing, performing and recording more actively in the new idiom. He was in contact with musicians like Julius Hemphill, Don Byron, David Murray, Doc Cheatham, Roswell Rudd, Loren Schoenberg, Jimmy Knepper, Randy Sandke, and others, all of whom subsequently played or recorded with Lowe’s bands. During this time Lowe recorded 2 compact discs at the Knitting Factory (with Murray, Cheatham, Hemphill, Schoenberg) as well as sessions for Enja and Music and Arts (with Ben Goldberg, Randy Sandke, Roswell Rudd) – and on the Music and arts Album he performed what turned out to be the first jazz interpretation of Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.
In 1990 Lowe began working for the Mayor of New Haven, and became Director of Jazz New Haven, the yearly summer free outdoor festival held on the New Haven Green. He ran the festival for three years, booking musicians like Tony Williams, Max Roach, Jaki Byard, Tito Puente, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Lovano, Randy Brecker, Ray Barretto, and James Moody.
In 1996 he moved to South Portland Maine, and what followed was a period of involuntary musical retirement. There was little musical work, no interest in his music, and a local arts scene dominated by folk music, retro-Indie Rock, and people under the age of 30. Out of sheer boredom he took up the guitar and began composing again, and also taught himself the technique of sound restoration. During this time Lowe wrote 4 books – American Pop from Minstrel to Mojo (a survey of American music from 1896-1946, published by Cadence and issued with a 9 CD set); That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History 1900-1950 (published by Music and Arts and issued with a 36 CD set); God Didn’t Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 1950-1970 (unpublished); The Lost Generation: Jazz of the 1950s (unpublished); and then, most recently, Really the Blues? A Blues History, 1893-1959 (with a 36 CD set and 80,000 words of notes). For all of these that were issued with compact discs sets Lowe did all mastering and sound restoration, and also began doing freelance sound work, for Rhino, Shout, Rykodisc, Sony, Michael Feinstein, Terry Gross (Fresh Air), Venus Records, and others. The last two historical reissue projects he has done (That Devilin Tune and Really the Blues?) remain as two of the largest independent projects ever done on the history of American music, and were completed without any outside, institutional support.
As a result of all of this one reviewer called Lowe “the Harry Smith of the 21st century.” Greil Marcus remarked that “Lowe has made a substantial contribution to American culture, and all of those who want to see our musical history whole are in his debt.” John Szwed commented that “Allen Lowe has forced us to rethink everything we ‘know’ about jazz – but I’ll add that he’s also forced us to question what we know about pop, country, and the blues as well. He has historicized pop music brilliantly…and the fact that he did it, and not one of the ‘big’ recording companies who are sitting on treasures of American music, is all the more astonishing. This collection should be in every household, or at the least in every library and school. Bravo! Encore!”
In the meantime, Lowe began doing yearly lectures on various musical topics and moderating panels at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies and the annual EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, Washington. He also lectured for the United States Information Agency in Europe. His books were used in courses at both Harvard and Yale, and entries appeared on him in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz and The Penguin Guide to Jazz on Compact Disc. There is also an entire chapter on him in the book Bebop and Nothingness, by Francis Davis (Schirmer:1996).
Finally, around 2001, Lowe began playing and recording again, on both guitar and alto saxophone. In 2007 he recorded a disc with Matthew Shipp, Lewis Porter, Randy Sandke, Marc Ribot, Scott Robinson, and Erin Mckeown. A mix of jazz, punk rock, and American roots music, it received little national notice, but high praise from the likes of Anthony Braxton (“Allen Lowe is a great writer. It’s hillbilly music but it’s trans-national. Allen Lowe is one of the few musicians doing anything new today. He is the tradition. I’m a big fan of Allen Lowe and I think as a musician and a scholar he is very important and I think he is deeply misunderstood because he doesn’t hate himself”) and led to Lowe’s inclusion in a book called Jazz Jews (Mike Gerber, Five Leaves Publications) in which it was advised that Lowe “extracts the most soulful sounds out of a synthesizer since Steve Wonder, composes ambient-evocative instrumentals, and songs with vernacular lyrics that stick in the mind like those of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Mose Allison or Lou Reed.” An internet fan commented that “Lowe’s CD has become my go-to album when I can’t decide if I am in the mood for the Art Ensemble, the Minutemen or Blind Willie Johnson,” and writer Jonathan Lethem commented that “angular, sly and funky, Lowe’s new CD is a bona fide wake up call from the avant garde.”
An uncomfortable encounter in 2008 with Wynton Marsalis led to Lowe’s current project/obsession, the reissue Really the Blues? A Blues History 1893-1959 (see above) as well as a recording project and New York concert of his own music based on the blues and its various related forms. He has been recording in the last year with Matthew Shipp, Marc Ribot, Lewis Porter, Randy Sandke, and Roswell Rudd, and is currently rehearsing a new Portland-based group in a series of blues and blues variations that also touch on gospel and other forms of street-music.