New Orleans trumpeter Shamarr Allen expands musical boundaries
Published: Friday, May 06, 2011, 10:30 PM
As a child, trumpeter Shamarr Allen asked Santa for microscopes and science kits.
As a teen, he auditioned for both the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and the New Orleans High School for Science and Math but was accepted only by Science and Math, he said.
"If not for music, I probably would be working in a lab somewhere," he said.
But in some ways, Allen, now 30, works in a laboratory of sorts: synthesizing, measuring and distilling jazz into something new.
Allen will play at the New Orleans Jazz Fest on Saturday at 12:35 p.m., at the Gentilly Stage.
"He's a real visionary," said singer and collaborator Paul Sanchez. In "504.799.8147," his upcoming CD, Allen "takes New Orleans jazz into rock and pop in ways I haven't heard before," Sanchez said.
The two first met in 2006 when, Sanchez said, he was a seasoned musician feeling stale, and "Shamarr was a young man impatient to get somewhere."
Allen has gotten somewhere. He's performed twice for President Barack Obama, at the White House for the governors' ball and at Tulane University during last year's presidential visit, where Allen played the national anthem. He leads the youth music clinics sponsored by Silence Is Violence. And after Hurricane Katrina, Bob French tapped him for the Original Tuxedo Brass Band, where Allen says he learned the business of music, summarized by French like this: "Always get your money."
Allen has also toured with his longtime favorite songwriter Willie Nelson, recorded with R.E.M., backed up Lenny Kravitz at last year's oil-spill benefit and has played with Rebirth, Hot 8 and other brass bands.
"I'm kind of unavoidable," Allen quipped.
Despite a 21-year age gap, Sanchez and Allen are close and call each other Uncle and Nephew. "And we mean it from the heart," Sanchez said.
Last year, they released an album called "Bridging the Gap," where Sanchez chose songs like John Lennon's "Instant Karma" from his generation of rock music for Allen to perform and Allen chose numbers like Kanye West's "Heartless" for Sanchez.
As Allen made clear in his solo CD "Box Who In?" his tastes are wide-ranging. Tops on his listening list right now are the genre-bending band N*E*R*D; hometown rapper Lil Wayne; his pal the bookwormish rapper Dee-1; and Prince, another genre-defier who, like Allen, plays every instrument on some cuts.
Playing in the crib
Allen grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, where his father, Keith Allen, an amateur saxophonist, nurtured his son's love of music by playing jazz records and teaching him the basics at a young age. Allen's father always says that there was a plastic flutophone waiting for infant Shamarr when they brought him home from the hospital.
Shamarr mastered the flutophone, then a plastic trumpet he begged for so that he could play duets with his dad. In between, he pounded drumsticks on pots and pans and anything else he could get his hands on.
But after Allen heard a Louis Armstrong record, he told his dad that he wanted to play whatever instrument that guy was playing. "It sounded like he was having so much fun," Allen said. "He was laughing all the way through the song."Not long afterward, his father came home with a trumpet. Shamarr was 7 years old and was soon playing with the school band at Bradley Elementary in Gentilly. By 14, he launched a brass band called Wolf Pack with close friends, including late Hot 8 snare drummer Dinerral Shavers.
He and his dad remain close. After the oil spill, upset because he couldn't go fishing with his dad, Allen wrote the song "Sorry Ain't Enough No More" with Dee-1, who rapped: "I'm trying to spread the opprobrium to everybody; Transocean, Halliburton and BP."
Recently, the State Department selected Allen as a U.S. cultural ambassador and flew him and his band the Underdawgs to the former Soviet Union, where they spent about three weeks touring in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. He just got back to his home in the Musicians' Village last week, leaving him without the time he needed to have an outfit made before today's gig at the Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
He was going to wear a shirt with "Jazz Is Dead" sewn on it, he said. "The older guys get mad when I say this," he said. "But I really feel that way. If it's not totally dead, it's on life support." After all, nearly every jazz musician must have a side job to pay bills, he said.
Given that mindset, it's not surprising that Allen feels a kinship with iconic songwriter and horn-player Dave Bartholomew -- who both made money and helped expand the boundaries of jazz, by creating the sound of early rock 'n' roll along with Fats Domino and Cosimo Matassa.
The two first met backstage at Madison Square Garden before a post-Katrina benefit concert; Bartholomew played a riff for him on the trumpet.
The next time they saw each other, Allen echoed the riff back to Bartholomew. Tickled, Bartholomew gave him some advice. "You keep writing your songs, Shamarr. And keep your publishing (rights)."
"I idolize that dude," Allen said.
Katy Reckdahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3396.
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