I’ve been thinking about Mose Alison recently, and that time that I was so lucky to meet and speak with him. Mose is an icon in the world of music, loved and admired by folk, rock and jazz musicians alike. He is purported to be one of Tom Wait’s greatest influences, (by his own admission), and played with many of the jazz greats back in the day. In fact, he was a jazz great himself, both as a pianist and vocalist. A composer and musician with a voice and sound so unique and individual that it is unmistakable when you hear him play or sing.
At the time of the concert, I was in college and studying jazz with bassist Herbie Lewis, former jazz great and then director of the modest New College Jazz Ensemble in San Francisco. Herbie and I had become close friends, even spending Thanksgiving together, and he referred to me as his adopted daughter. My own father, who was largely lost in those days to mental illness came alive when we visited with Herbie. He positively beamed in his presence, and was thrilled with my scholastic choices, despite the dubious prospect of making a living as a musician.
Both Herbie and my father were big talkers. They were each full of stories, brimming with things to share, overflowing with opinions and commentary. I listened. I had grown up listening to my father’s charismatic stories, and now I listened as Herbie shared his. And yet they also both taught me how to listen. My father had shared countless musical artists and albums with me, many of which none of my contemporaries were familiar with when I went off to college. And Herbie taught me about the conversation that happens in a small jazz ensemble, the importance and necessity of listening to each other, and speaking, (with your instrument), where it complements the conversation. How the silence in between is as important as the sound.
Herbie was a character to be sure, and class often consisted of a spontaneous bus trip to the San Francisco Wharf to catch some live music or buy some food while he would regale us with stories of Thelonious Monk and Frank Sinatra, both of whom had been his friends and colleagues, or reminiscences of Scott LaFaro, Bill Evan’s bass player and Herbie’s onetime mentor and hero.
Herbie had asked me at one point who my favorite pianists were, and laughed out loud when I told him that it came down to Red Garland and Mose Alison. He’d played with Mose, had been his bass player once upon a time, just as he had McCoy Tyner’s and Bobby Hutcherson’s. And as he gave me a sidelong glance, he told me that I reminded him of Mose, and I couldn’t think of a greater compliment in the world.
Back then, I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in myself as a performer, although I was driven to play and often practiced several hours a day. For my senior concert, I performed a smattering of classical pieces, Bach, Chopin, Bartok, and then invited members of the jazz ensemble onstage so that we could play a few songs together; a few standards, an original composition, and one that I decided to sing while accompanying myself: I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues, very much in the style of Mose Alison. Afterwards, Herbie looked at me aghast and said, “I didn’t know you could sing like that.” I realized that I’d never sung in front of him before. I’d been too shy, too timid, too afraid of my own voice. Having done it once successfully made me bolder to try it again, and I began to sing in a variety of situations, stretching my musical comfort zones, which is something I've continued to enjoy doing.
Lately I’ve been on a bit of a musical hiatus for a while, though I’m not sure what propelled me to step back from it all. Sometimes you just need to listen to the silence. Then just recently I've begun to play a bit again, and to listen to some of my old favorites. Mose has come up on the speakers repeatedly, and his songwriting is as timely as ever.
When I met him after the concert, flanked by Herbie and my father on either side, Mose shook my hand and bent his head to the side, leaning in with one ear, the better to hear me, ever the listener. A true musician. I may have asked him something about his playing, and I most certainly told him that he was one of my favorite pianists. But what I remember most is his soft spoken kindness, his simple, friendly demeanor, his humanity, and the way he listened to a twenty-year-old aspiring pianist whom he’d never met, and who stood there so small and insignificant in between her two overbearing and loving fathers.