It’s a sunny afternoon, and despite the visible piles of debris from the Lincoln Center construction, the view from Carl Allen’s office window is refreshing and somewhat calming. The inside, however, is a different story. The computer screen shows a calendar that resembles a rainbow because of the congested schedule of assorted events; all around is the ceaseless sound of the office phone ringing, cell phones buzzing on the desk, constant electronic alerts and reminders, while the desk is dense with work still to be done. This is the typical office of a person with great responsibility—and that’s no different for Carl Allen.
Mr. Allen offers me a seat at the meeting table. As I sit down and pull out my phone to record the interview, his eyes light up at the sight of a possible iPhone application that he hasn’t heard of.
“Which program is that?” he asks as he looks across the table at the phone screen.
“This one’s called Speakeasy. I think it was only $1.99.”
“Oh, yeah? Is it a good one?”
“I’m not sure; I just got it today,” I say, as Allen appears to be taking a mental picture of the application so he can look into it later. I’m not sure it’s possible to have more gadgets than he already has, but his knowledge of popular electronics has probably made his life much easier.
The past 14 or 15 months have not been a walk in the park for Carl Allen. Even for this self-described workaholic, they haven’t been easy. It began at the start of the 2007-08 school year when Allen was appointed interim artistic director of the Jazz Studies Department. One would think that a man who is not only a great drummer, but a record producer, bandleader, and teacher would be counting down the days until another poor individual would take on the incredibly taxing position—but in February 2008, Allen happily accepted the position permanently, and over the past school year has indeed proven why he is just the man for the job.
Allen’s career began to flourish at an early age. While in his hometown of Milwaukee (Allen likes to tell people that this is the true jazz capital), he had gigs with jazz greats such as Sonny Stitt and James Moody. One year before graduating from William Paterson College in New Jersey, he was asked to join trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s band. Allen served as the band’s musical director for eight years and played on several recordings. One may wonder how this path led him to being the artistic director of a conservatory jazz program. Of course, there was no way for him to know then that he would hold this position one day, but it was, as he says, “destined to happen.”
“For me, I’ve always loved education and teaching,” he recalls, “mainly because of the magic that takes place between the time you dispense information and when the student processes it and puts it into motion. That was always very exiting for me. As I got older, I began to feel a sense of responsibility because I started to see a lot of the people I had learned from—Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and great people like that—were no longer with us. So, as I started to encounter specifically young drummers, the question that was evident was, ‘Where are they going to get this information from?’ The information that was passed on to me and my peers.”
Having a generous personality, especially concerning music, Allen begins to discuss his thoughts on passing on this knowledge. “There is a segment of the music community that feels, ‘I had a hard time gettin’ it, and you should have a hard time, too. Otherwise, you won’t appreciate it.’ I’ve always felt that, regardless of what you do for someone, everyone will have his or her own journey. I believe that if I can make it easier for you than it was for me, I’ll do that, because you are still going to have challenges. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no shortcut for practicing and putting your time in.”
Young musicians are constantly discussing the fact that mentors such as Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones don’t exist anymore and there appears to be a dimly lit future for anyone who chooses music as a profession. To Carl Allen, this is not completely true. “There will always be people to look up to,” he states. “Things are different now. It’s not better or worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago, it’s just different. As each generation comes along, they have different experiences. So, Art Blakey, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson and others could share with me what it was like in the ’50s and ’60s. My generation can only share what it was like from the ’60s on. So we bring something different to the table.”
Allen continues, “The real challenge is that the young musician has to want to be mentored. There isn’t a lack of information or a lack of resources; it’s really the issue of being teachable. When I was coming up, the thing that the older musicians would look for outside of talent was whether or not an individual was teachable. Are they willing to take instruction in order to get better and move forward? That means putting your ego aside and recognizing the times for you to sit on the side and just watch. That’s harder now than it was 20 years ago.”
He elaborates on why this is so: “Society today wants everything now. We’re all slaves to technology and wanting things faster, from the Internet to the microwave, creating a shorter attention span for a lot of young people. When I was coming up, it was normal for people to spend six to eight hours a day practicing. If you ask the average student, ‘When’s the last time you practiced eight hours a day?’ they usually respond, ‘In one day?!’ Or if I told a student, ‘Go in that room and practice until 9,’ they’d probably ask, ‘Well, why? Am I being punished?’ It has nothing to do with being lazy; it is just what this generation is accustomed to.”
Allen had the chance to discuss this very issue with bassist Ron Carter, who told him, “Part of the problem is that a lot of the young musicians don’t want to take the time to sound bad before they can sound good.”
Another issue is the type of mentor that most young musicians seek out. “Sometimes we make the mistake of looking for someone who will validate the way we already feel and make us feel good,” Allen explains. “A mentor should really be someone who is going to be honest with you and tell you when it’s happenin’, when it’s not happenin’, and when you’re really messing up—and that includes when you’re away from the instrument. We need that person who’s going to be brutally honest with us.”
That brutal honesty came for Allen at a time when he wasn’t expecting it. “One of the defining moments in my life happened here in New York around 1986 when I was playing with Freddie Hubbard at the Blue Note,” he recalls. “At this point, I had become frustrated because of the high turnover of musicians, lack of rehearsals, and consistent repertoire. During this show at the Blue Note, I had become more apathetic than I realized. As I walked off the stage after the set, I hear a voice say, ‘Meet me in the dressing room!’ It was Art Blakey. He had been there the whole set and I didn’t know. As I timidly come into the room, Art is furiously pacing back and forth. He suddenly grabs me by the collar and heaves me against the wall, holding me about a foot above the ground. As tears roll down my face, he yells, ‘What are you doin’? I know what’s going on—you’re bored. But you’re in my fraternity now. The moment you decided you wanted to play drums as a profession was the moment you joined my fraternity with Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Sid Catlett and others. We have sweat, bled, been humiliated, and died in order for your generation to be able to make a living. Right now you’re disrespecting our legacy. Every time you sit down to play, you should be playing as if it’s the most important time. If I ever come hear you play again,’ he said with an incredible emphasis on the word if, ‘if I ever see you disrespecting the music like that, if I ever come and see you misrepresent us like this … I’ll kill you.’
“He said this without cracking a smile. That changed my life, because I was so grateful that he took the time to do that for me.”
Jazz has always been taught on the bandstand, so how does the artistic director of a jazz program feel about this music being taught in schools instead of on the road? Allen sees both pros and cons in the recent growth in jazz education. “The obvious downside of the school situation is, one gets a false sense of reality and doesn’t realize where they are in the big scheme of things,” Allen says. “You can be the best musician in school and graduate ready to conquer the world; however, not being on the real scene, you have no way to measure where you really are.
“On the other side, because the jazz scene has changed, a lot of great musicians are finding themselves being involved with jazz education. As a result, more and more musicians feel the need to give.”
But no matter how many musicians come to teach at a conservatory, there is still no substitute for going out and playing with other people, he adds. “An individual may spend a lot of time in the practice room, but once they get into a playing situation, their reflexes have diminished. It’s a lot like a boxer. When you’re training, you’re punching a bag. Before you know it, you think you’re pretty good. Now when you get in the ring and you’re face-to-face with a real person that can punch back, you get to see how good you really are. One of the most important parts of this music is reacting to what is going on around you.”
Since Carl Allen accepted his position about a year ago, there have been high points and low ones, as with anything else. “One high point has been seeing the coming together of new faculty members,” he notes. “It’s great to have this feeling of cohesiveness and a shared vision. A big concern of mine was trying to put together a vision that everyone would accept. The central concern is making sure that this is the best environment for you, the students.
“I constantly tell the faculty that, for me, it’s about measurable progress in reasonable time. If we look at the whole program, one student, or even ourselves, we have to look at a reasonable amount of time and ask, ‘Has there been progress?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ then there’s something wrong.”
The faculty seem to have embraced this philosophy and continue to focus on the growth of their students. “A program this small should feel like family,” Allen always says. “One person’s success is everyone’s success, and if one person has challenges, we all have to pitch in to help.”
Along with those high points, Allen admits that there have definitely been low points this past year. “Sometimes students don’t think that we understand,” he begins. “That’s been a low point. They constantly ask why we won’t let them leave school for various performance opportunities. In my mind, this is the most prestigious musical conservatory in the world. If you put that on par with the most prestigious medical school or law school, what are the expectations there? I ask some of my friends about their time at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and they tell me that parts of the program are designed to see if a student will fail. That sounds cold! But if you’re going to be a doctor, think about what it is you will be responsible for. They want to ensure that you don’t miss any part of the curriculum. We have to hold our faculty and students to a similar level, and the challenge is getting some students to understand that. When we don’t allow certain things, it’s not to be punitive; it’s in order to maintain that high standard.”
In addition, although Jazz Studies at Juilliard has been going on for eight years now, many people still don’t realize that there is a jazz program here. Allen’s way to combat that “is to consistently put out great people who are doing great work.”
So what’s next for the jazz program? Allen has a few things up his sleeve. “There are a lot of things I’d like to do,” he says. “I would like to do more recording and touring. In order to balance out the fact that we are constantly asking students to stay committed to the program, we are always trying to present playing opportunities outside of the School. I would also like to continue to bring in guest artists. That includes artists who may do something that I’m not particularly a fan of, in order to have people that may answer any questions that you all might have.”
Allen then looks at me as if he’s going to leak classified information. “I’d like to see a couple of new programs down the road too,” he says. “I’d like to see us offer a degree in jazz composition.” He sees a smirk come across my face, and we share a laugh because he is aware of my growing interest in composition. He adds, “We’ve had, and will continue to have, students that are better or just as talented writers as they are players, and I would like to cater to those individuals as well. I would also like to see us have a degree in the business of jazz. In order for us to do what we do as musicians, we need managers, publicists, and agents. I’ve constantly wondered, ‘Where do these people get their training from?’
“As much as 95 percent of musicians want to play professionally. Not all 95 percent of them will have careers, but that shouldn’t mean that they have to give up music. Many of them have brilliant minds and for some reason may not make it as a full-time musician. Therefore, they need as many opportunities as possible to use other skills they might have.”
Before I leave his office, Allen shares with me the mantra that he tells all of his faculty members: “Our job is to educate, encourage, and empower our students to succeed.” It goes back to what brought Carl Allen to education in the first place—seeing the spark in a student that ignites the fuse for creativity. As far as I can tell, the Juilliard Jazz Studies Department is in good hands.