May 27, 2003
ALLEN EAGER, the last of the 40s tenormen (Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Brew Moore, Al Cohn) who idolized Lester Young, died of liver cancer in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Sunday, April 13, at the age of 76. A fact that just about went unnoticed - I spotted the word "memorial" attached to Allen's name on a playlist posted on the internet by Steve Schwartz of station WGBH in Boston. An email to Steve led me further - to the "jazz-west coast" web site and a number of postings concerning Allen but no obit, a quick email to Ira Gitler (you don't call him during Stanley Cup playoffs) produced the information that he had been called on the subject by Stephen Miller, an obit writer for the N.Y. Sun, and that he'd been told by Miller that Allen had died on May 13. Further digging led me to the obituary page of The Daytona Beach News-Journal of Thursday, April 17 which meant that April 13th was the correct date. Surprisingly none of the major papers including the NY Times had any coverage.
EAGER was born in NYC on January 10, 1927 and is best remembered for his tenor playing (although he did appear on alto on the occasional recording). According to bassist / writer Bill Crow, Allen had a capacity for learning that encompassed many fields. He began on the clarinet at 13, studying with Dave Webber of the NY Phil., and by the time he was 16 was working professionally, on the road with the big band of Bobby Sherwood (whose "Sherwood's Forrest" was a big band hit). Eager's parents owned a hotel, "The Eager Rose Garden" in the Catskills and tenorman Dave Pell recently recalled playing there in the late 30s, early 40s, when he was young (he was almost two years Allen's senior) and becoming Allen's friend, as well as teaching the younger man to play the saxophone. Before landing gigs on NY's 52nd Street in 1945 during the early days of bebop, Allen played with the bands of Sonny Dunham, Shorty Sherock, Woody Herman and Tommy Dorsey, as well as the combo of Johnny Bothwell. On 52nd Street he worked with a number of groups including his own at mid decade. In 1948 when bebop made the move to Broadway, Allen found himself, for the better part of the year, at the famed "Royal Roost" in Tadd Dameron's band and in the company of people like Rudy Williams, Fats Navarro, Wardell Gray and Kenny Clarke. He also often toured with the Buddy Rich big bands of the late 40s but for latter part of the career he was featured either with his own groups or as a soloist. In 1953 he was heard at the Band Box in NYC as well as in Boston. That was the year that he came into Montreal to play with PAUL BLEY in the Jazz Workshop's room (above the Video Café on (then) Dorchester Blvd., on the south side just East of Crescent). It was to be the only time I would hear him live. The next year he was heard at the Open Door in Greenwich Village and he also spent time on the U.S. West Coast as well as in Paris. In 1960 he played Newport on alto in Charles Mingus' "Rebel" festival and in the 80s was heard in Florida as well making appearances in NYC at the West End Café in 1982 and The Jazz Showcase in Chicago in '86. But he was in and out of music from the 50s on.
I earlier mentioned Bill Crow's statement that Allen could, in his words, "learn things faster than anyone I ever met." He speaks of Allen going to Aspen for his first "ski adventure" and staying on as an instructor. In 1961, with an experienced car driving lady friend, he entered the touring class of the Sebring (Florida) 12 hour endurance race - they took first prize, he had never driven in a race before and when asked about his success he replied, "I read a book about it once." I was told that once he cornered the "frozen custard" market in France (?) When he came to Montreal in 1953, Paul Bley sent Neil Michaud, who would be the bass player on the gig, and I to Windsor Station to meet Allen's train from New York. It arrived and before long the concourse emptied leaving but a single person, a man standing with skis as his only luggage. Neil and I figured Allen must have missed the train but decided to ask this cat anyway. We inquired if he was Allen Eager and he said that he was and that someone was supposed to meet him. We told him that we were looking for a cat with a saxophone case and he replied, "Oh, that's in baggage"! Later that night, after a set of music, he suggested that Michaud, "take up plumbing".
LESTER YOUNG (who, in speaking of the tenormen who came up in the 40s, mentioned that he particularly liked Wardell Gray, also observed, "If you're talking about gray [read "white"] boys, Allen Eager can blow") was not Allen's first influence, that was BEN WEBSTER. Crow, repeats the story Allen told of an early meeting with his early idol - it went something like this: "Ben, was on Broadway, playing with Duke Ellington. I walked over to him and said "Man I love the way you play. You're my favorite saxophonist. Could you give me some lessons? I'm learning how to play". He hesitated saying that Coleman Hawkins was also pretty "heavy". Eager repeated his request and Ben said. "Well, all right" and give me his address. I went up there about one in the morning, it was the first time I had been to Harlem, he lived in a little room above Minton's. I set up and played his chorus on the "Cottontail" recording and he flipped. He went down the hall and woke up people like Russell Procope, Ray Nance etc. and said, "You ought to hear this white kid, listen to this white kid!" - I was barely 15 - he thought it was marvelous that a young white kid should even be aware of who he was, never mind copy his solos. He gave me three or four lessons - full of tips. But then I went to the Coast and heard CHARLIE PARKER and Pres [Lester Young] and did a 180. A year and half later I was back in the Apple working at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street when Webster came into find that I had found a new idol in Lester Young.
The RECORDED LEGACY: Back on February 27, 1946 (four days after my 11th birthday) Allen Eager recorded with a "52nd Street All Star Band" "headed" by Coleman Hawkins and four tracks from that session (combined with an equal amount recorded just a bit earlier by a Dizzy Gillespie group with Don Byas, Milt Jackson and Al Haig) came out in an RCA 78rpm album called "New 52nd Street Jazz" and I received that album as a 12th birthday gift - I guess my parents paid more attention to what I listening to than I had thought - and therein I discovered the very swinging tenor of Mr. Eager who [along with the unsung Pete Brown] was given a feature on Denzil Best's "Allen's Alley" [aka "Wee"]. Eager's debut as a leader [on the Savoy label] came less than a month later, with four tracks: Rampage, Vot's Dot, Booby Hatch and Symphony Sid's Idea, recorded March 22, 1946 with Ed Finckel, a pianist and composer whose son is now a member of the Emerson String Quartet, bassist Bob Carter (actually Kahakalau, his parents were Hawaiian) and drummer Max Roach. Allen was barely 19. On July 15th of the following year, on what turned out to be vibraphonist TERRY GIBBS' recording debut, Allen did another Savoy date, this one with Gibbs and Bird's rhythm section, Duke Jordan, Curley Russell and again Max Roach. They did All Night All Frantic [another dedication to deejay "Symphony" Sid Torin], Donald Jay, And That's For Sure and Meeskite. On January 22, 1947, again for Savoy, Eager was heard with a group at one time known as Teddy Reig's All Stars, KAI WINDING, valve trombone, Eager, Marty Napoleon, piano, Eddie Safranski, bass and Shelly Manne, drums - Winding, Safranski and Manne were all members of the Stan Kenton band of the time. Exactly a week later, January 29, 1947, Eager recorded for Harry Lim's Keynote label [now on Mercury] with a group listed as "Red Rodney's Be-Boppers" with the leader on trumpet, Serge Chaloff, baritone, Haig, piano, Chubby Jackson, bass and the marvellous Tiny Kahn on drums heard on All God's Children, (Mulligan's) Elevation, Fine and Dandy and (Al Cohn's) The Goof and I. April 1947 brought a first recorded meeting with the great bebop trumpeter, Theodore "Fats" Navarro - both solo splendidly on: High On An Open Mike and Sweet Georgia Brown from a WNEW Saturday Night Swing Session broadcast. The 1948 gigs with composer / pianist / leader TADD DAMERON led to a number of recordings both "live" and in the studios [and like the aforementioned b cast, available on the 4cd set "The Fats Navarro Story" on Proper Box.] On August 28th Tadd, Allen, Rudy Williams, another under appreciated altoman, Navarro, Russell and Kenny Clarke were captured "live" on Good Bait, Anthropology and the bebop line on Lady Be Good, on September 4th, also at the Royal Roost with Milt Jackson added on vibes on the first cut, we can hear, Symphonette, The Tadd Walk and The Squirrel and on October 9th, Dameronia, Our Delight and Eb Pob [Bebop backwards] were cut. Just a bit earlier, September 13th, Tadd's group recorded for Blue Note with another tenor (the great) WARDELL GRAY in for Williams. They did Lady Bird, Symphonette, Jahbero, with the ill fated, Chano Pozo on bongos and, with a forgettable vocal by Kenny "Pancho" Hagood, I Think I'll Go Away. On April 8, 1949 someone at what was then New Jazz [later Prestige] Records came up with the idea of session that would feature five tenors, all influenced by Lester Young - an easy task in those days. Referred to as Stan Getz' Five Brothers, Getz, Eager, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Brew Moore (who said that if you didn't play tenor like Lester, you were WRONG!) recorded Battle Ground and Battle of the Saxes by Cohn and Five Brothers and Four and One Moore by Mulligan. On August 27, 1951 Eager was on a Mulligan session that had him heard to great advantage, especially on the last named item, a 17 minute plus blues featuring Jeru and the tenorman. It was a Prestige date, "Mulligan Plays Mulligan" with Ollie Wilson, Jerry Lloyd, Nick Travis, George Wallington, bassist Phil Leshin, Walter Bolden and (Mulligan's then main squeeze) Gail Madden on maracas heard together on all but the aforementioned blues. On the first item here, a second baritone, in one Max McElroy, was added, Mullenium, Funhouse, Ide's Side (for deejay Carl Ide), Roundhouse, Kaper, Bweebida Bobbida and Mulligan's Too were the titles.
Eager, along with Davey Schildkraut, was featured on an August 16/17, 1955 date for the Victor company led by arranger, composer, pianist, GEORGE HANDY -- issued on Label "X", "Handyland USA" has been reissued on Spanish RCA Victor and is well worth searching out - it's includes Handy compositions such as Blinuet, Pegasus, Zonkin' and Lean To. TONY FRUSCELLA, a extremely talented trumpeter, did a date for Atlantic [now on the "Complete Works" a double CD on Jazz Factory] in March and April of 1955. Tony and Allen were joined by Bill Triglia [don't pronounce the "g"], piano, Bill Anthony, bass and Will's son, Junior Bradley, drums on the seven tracks released from the second session - trombonist Chauncey Welsch and Danny Bank on baritone were added on the first. In December, the 4th and 5th, 1957 GERRY MULLIGAN recorded an octet for a "Mulligan Songbook" release on Pacific Jazz with Freddie Green, [the recently (2003) rediscovered] HENRY GRIMES and Dave Bailey joined by Jeru, Eager, Sims, Cohn and Lee Konitz on seven arrangements from the pen of BILL HOLMAN - all but the leader and Konitz juggled a number of different saxes on this date. Eager also did a date with Dave Lambert [including "Deedle"], one, I believe, with Serge Chaloff and one in France in 1956 with Christian Chevalier. As well he's on some air checks by Buddy Rich and Bothwell. In 1982, Montreal-based Dr. Bob Sunenblick, recorded him, with Hod O'Brien, in NYC and "Renaissance" remains a vinyl only release at present. To end on a musical high note, that same label, Uptown, is in the process of releasing, "ALLEN EAGER, IN THE LAND OF OO-BLA-DEE" - rare material featuring Allen with the likes of "Bird" (Charlie Parker), Chaloff and pianist Dick Twardzik - Watch the stores!
Allen's survivors include his son, Jacob of Miami, Florida, two daughters, Ormine Eager, also of Miami, and Zoe Griffin of Roswell, Ga., and two granddaughters.
If you're unfamiliar with the name and the playing, check him out - HE ALWAYS SWUNG!
© Len Dobbin 2003
Montreal, Quebec, Canada