All That Jazz

To Dick Allen, jazz music was the sweetest sound he ever heard.  He loved the soulful sounds so much that he made it his life long mission to collect them, curate them and conserve them for generations to come.  This is the story of a Milledgeville, Georgia man who spent his last years confined to a lonely, dying  bed  in the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center here in Dublin, Georgia.

Richard Binion “Dick” Allen was born on Jan. 29, 1927 in Allen’s Invalid Home, a sanitarium for the mentally ill which was established by Dick’s grandfather, Dr. Henry D. Allen.  Allen attended Georgia Military College in his hometown and entered Princeton University for a short time before joining the United States Navy.  After World War II, Dick returned home and graduated from the University of Georgia.

From his earliest days, music was a big part of Dick’s life.   His first taste of jazz came near the end of the war in New Orleans when he heard Big Eye Louis Nelson.  From that moment on, Dick’s destiny was set.  He would spend the next half century or more studying the truly American musical art form.

Dick was so captivated by the mystical allure of the French Quarter of New Orleans that he abandoned his life goal to become a physician.   Allen wanted to break down the barriers which separated his race from the race which created jazz music.

He took odd jobs, mostly working in bookstores and record shops.  One of those record shops was that of Orin Blackstone, where he eventually became the manager.  From that position, he became friends with and earned the trust of the jazz men of New Orleans. Allen began to learn more about jazz music and the jazz musicians in the city.  He worked with musicians and often invited them into his home or to his many parties.

Dick Allen, in furtherance of his college studies and his master’s thesis, set out to study and chronicle jazz music like no one else had ever done.   He approached William Ransom Hogan, a Tulane professor of history about using oral history interviews for his thesis.  Hogan responded affirmatively and turned Allen loose on the streets of New Orleans.   That day was the beginning of Tulane University’s jazz archive, named for Hogan upon his death in 1974.

Above: Allen (center) with Bill Russell (leftt)  and William Hogan (right.) 

The archive’s main mission was to collect, catalog and conserve anything related to the history of jazz music, as well as gospel music, ragtime, rhythm and blues, and the indigenous Creole music of Louisiana.  Hogan sought out and received grants to help build and house the archives’ collection.

Allen and his associates took to the streets, the music halls and the jazz joints of the Crescent City. Funeral parades often drew the attention of the archivists.   Dick recorded oral histories and musical performances.  With more than 2000 reels of tape, these recordings total more than five hundred and constitute the largest collection of jazz related oral histories in the world.   In addition to his audio recordings, he took photographs, made films and conserved as much ephemeral memorabilia as he could from musicians, some of whom had been playing jazz since the beginning of the 20th Century.
(Allen with jazz legend Paul Barbarin) above.

Allen was one of those rare historians who really got it.  Dick knew that while the past was important, he needed to document the present state of jazz music in New Orleans.

“A lot of times people take the present for granted, they only think the past is important,” once said  his research assistant Eleanor Ellis. “But Dick Allen knew it wasn’t going to go on forever.”

Allen worked along with the archive’s first curator, William Russell, until 1965 when Allen took over.  Allen oversaw the collection, which was moved to the university library that same year. Researchers and jazz afficionados from around the United States and the world came to New Orleans to study Allen’s collections of materials. In making his landmark film on the history of jazz music, film maker Ken Burns used Allen’s collection to tell the story of the musical genre which originated in New Orleans just before the turn of the 20th Century.

Allen himself was seen as the country’s leading expert on jazz and was often called upon for interviews, advice and to write liner notes for jazz recordings.  He retired as the full time archive curator in 1980 at the age of 53, but hung around the place for another two decades until 2000, doing what he did best, studying and collecting all that jazz.

“Dick Allen would send me out. I would go to the funeral or parade. And, I would take notes: the name of the band, the musicians, their instruments, the occasion and what songs and any other things that stood out. That was really a great part of the job!”  Eleanor Ellis told writer Carolyn Kolb for a 2012 New Orleans magazine story.

Dick Allen attempted to learn how to play jazz music, studying under Manuel Manetta, whose students included  Jelly Roll Morton, Red Allen and many other New Orleans musicians.

In 1970, Allen helped to found  the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which annually attracts thousands of visitors to New Orleans.

Left: Allen with Paul Barbarin, Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington (left)

Dick Allen died on April 27, 2007 in the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, GA, some fifty miles south of his birthplace in Milledgeville.  The eighty-year-old had lived the last four years of his wonderful life in relative obscurity and confined to a hospital bed.

Few, if anyone, in the wards of the VA hospital knew the remarkable story of the world’s ultimate jazz historian.  Few people knew the man, who the Associated Press described as, “A French Quarter "character" who fully embraced the engagingly laid-back style of New Orleans.”

Jazz critic Whitney Bailliet remarked in 1967 that Dick Allen was “the friend and confidant of all New Orleans musicians and adviser and guide to everyone from television networks to old ladies in pursuit of George Lewis.”   Bailliet compared Dick Allen to Virgil, the iconic poet of ancient Rome, dubbing Allen as “the curator of New Orleans jazz itself.”

“In a town that enshrines and cherishes characters, Dick was one of the great ones,” said Robert H. Patterson, who worked with Mr. Allen at Tulane University’s William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive.