Tuesday, December 31, 2019


Original TONIGHT SHOW host Steve Allen always had a foot in the music world, and in particular he was always a friend of jazz. He wrote many songs (although only “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big” and “Gravy Waltz” are remembered today) and made the occasional album over the years as a pianist. He also played Benny Goodman in the 1955 biopic THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY, a film remembered for having great music, but although a public figure and TV host, Allen was not really an actor. If he’d been playing himself in the biopic, that would not be a problem, but as he was supposed to be playing a different character, and in the case of Benny Goodman, one who had a distinctive and complex personality and multiple levels operating at any time, Allen’s performance is usually considered inadequate. Most viewers close their eyes and enjoy the fine musical score. Still, Allen continued to support jazz on his various programs and even produced a 60’s TV series called JAZZ SCENE USA, some episodes of which were released on VHS tape in the 1990’s. From the 50’s through the 80’s, Steve Allen was a familiar face on television, whether hosting his own shows or guest-hosting other shows.

JAZZ FOR TONIGHT was recorded on August 17, 1955. After THE TONIGHT SHOW finished broadcasting that night in NYC at 2 a.m., Allen and the band drove down to Rudy Van Gelder’s home studio (hundreds of classic albums were recorded there) in New Jersey, one of the best-regarded studios for recording jazz on the East Coast, where the album was recorded into the morning hours and completed before lunch.

Allen assembled a crack band of NY studio musicians with first-rate jazz credentials: Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Milt Hinton on bass, George Barnes on guitar, Urbie Green on trombone, Hank D’Amico on clarinet, Bobby Rosengarden on drums, and Allen himself on piano. Seven of the eight tunes (which are quite long, the album is nearly 25 minutes a side!) are regulars in the jazz repertoire, and the eighth is a slow blues penned by Allen. The highest praise I can give this album is that if you slipped it into a stack of 50’s mainstream jazz albums, you would probably consider it a solid effort, though without any real distinction. Allen’s piano has no bop element to it (although he hinted at bop, slightly, in the POETRY FOR THE BEAT GENERATION album he recorded with writer Jack Kerouac, an album I’ve played hundreds of times over the decades), though he’s also not a stride player with roots in the 20’s. I’d compare him with someone like Erroll Garner, though without the Garner mannerisms, and when he’s playing as a band pianist behind the soloists, it’s clear he’s listened to Count Basie, though as with Garner, he doesn’t affect any of Basie’s mannerisms (he’s also not as minimalist as Basie). Allen seems clearly based in the 1950’s jazz style called “mainstream,” with players who grew up during the Swing era but were untouched by bop and at the same time not rooted in the New Orleans or Chicago jazz of the 1920’s, the way that people playing in bands assembled by Eddie Condon would be. Allen likes blues piano, which helps when you don’t have a distinctive style as it gives you a groove in which you can coast, but he’s not rooted in it the way, say, a Horace Silver is. A lot of these kind of musicians wound up in TV and film soundtrack studio work or in the pit bands of TV or Broadway shows. When Allen moved out West and started broadcasting from Los Angeles, he became a champion of the West Coast jazz scene, and once produced a Chet Baker album called ALBERT’S HOUSE with Baker playing all compositions by Steve Allen (an album not considered among Chet’s best, yet one that has been reissued on dodgy labels multiple times—also, I just checked, and most of it is available on You Tube). This was in 1969, after Chet had lost many of his teeth in an accident/scuffle (you can read the various accounts of this possibly drug-related event online), and he really needed a break as he was re-learning how to play with dentures and also re-inventing himself as a stylist with a frail, bird-with-a-broken-wing kind of understatement.

Allen continued to have one foot in jazz over the decades. He did an album with Oliver Nelson for Impulse (Bob Thiele, of Impulse, was his old producer at Coral and gave the green light for the JAZZ FOR TONIGHT ALBUM, though the liner notes do not mention if he was at the session) and continued to do the one-off jazz trio date here and there. He also wrote the lyrics and the music for a Broadway show about Sophie Tucker (!!!!), and although that show was not a hit, it is well-remembered by people who saw it (I saw a few accounts online from people who remember the 1963 show as if it were yesterday), and a few of the songs from the show were recorded by Judy Garland.

The only real problem with the JAZZ FOR TONIGHT album is the recording itself, which is strange when you consider how many great sessions Rudy Van Gelder engineered. As this was a mono recording, there was no “mixing.” He got a balance on the instruments as the musicians were warming up, and as he’d done hundreds of sessions prior to this, he could probably have done this in his sleep. Thus, I’m kind of surprised that Allen’s piano is not particularly well-recorded. It’s somewhere between being a bit muffled and being a bit off-mike. Oh, you can always hear it, but it’s not as clear and up-front as the other musicians are. I can hear the metal of guitarist George Barnes’s strings with a sharpness and bite that I never hear from Allen’s piano….not to mention the horns, which are way out front and in your face. You would not know that the pianist was the featured musician on the album. Whether this was a rare flub in setting up a balance by Van Gelder, or whether he was commenting in his own way on his opinion of Allen compared with the “real” jazzmen in the group, I’m not sure. It’s worse on some tracks than on others, with the first track on side two, the old standard “Limehouse Blues” (was this a nod to Benny Goodman, whom Allen had just played in a feature film, since this was a great Goodman hit?), being the worst offender, as if a wet blanket was draped over the piano.

Overall, though, I do enjoy this album—I’ve owned it for 40 years. What it lacks is a strong presence by its leader, something not helped by the recording balance. You might think it was a Charlie Shavers album, but Shavers knows whose name is on the cover, so he does not dominate the proceedings, although he’s always a strong and attention-commanding player. The version of “Body and Soul” from this album is currently on You Tube, and it suffers less than other tracks from the recording imbalance, so give it a try, if you’d like a taste of this album. Steve Allen today is most often mentioned in regard to other people’s history----Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac, Elvis Presley (Steve had him on his TV show early on)----and in regard to the history of late night TV. Or he’s mentioned as someone who was not a fan of rock and roll or who in his later years objected to profanity and obscenity in entertainment, and often found himself on the same side of arguments as someone like Tipper Gore in the 80’s or 90’s. Presently, you can get a copy of the album for $2.27 on Discogs. You might get more pleasure out of it than you’d get out of a double cheeseburger at McDonald’s for the same $2.27. Or you might not.

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