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What Do You Do During the Day?

Woody Allen, clarinet player and film maker.

John Robert Brown

Woody Allen

Image Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd

In Woody Allen's 1990 film Alice, Mia Farrow took the title role. She played a wealthy New Yorker living on the Upper East Side with her stockbroker husband Doug (William Hurt) and their two children. The pinnacle of posh, she's an elegant Lady Who Lunches. She shops at Valentino, Cartier and Gucci. The designer-clad Alice falls into an illicit but blossoming relationship with handsome musician, Joe Rufallo (Joe Mantegna).

In muted tones Alice disconcerts Joe by guessing that he plays the saxophone. "You look like you blow tenor to me," she says serenely. She asks: "What number reed do you use?" "Three," says Joe, with a look of incredulity. When Joe tells Alice that he's also fooling around a little with soprano saxophone, she tells him: "That'll extend your range. You know that, don't you? I remember the first time I heard Coltrane on soprano. It was such a moment, Joe. Opened a whole new world of harmonics for me."

The fun lies in the incongruity of the interchange. Whoever heard of a lady from Manhattan's Gold Coast of shopping, the Upper East Side, one of New York's premium residential addresses, chatting expertly about saxophone reeds, or about John Coltrane?

Woody Allen wrote the script and directed the film. The bringing together of Woody's love of jazz and his skill as a film director is something to savour. Nevertheless, one must emphasise that first and foremost he's really a film maker; his love of jazz is there as a background, and a colouration of his work. The playing of jazz is not Woody Allen's main claim to fame.
Yet Woody has never been shy to show his love of the best of mainstream jazz and standard songs. The name 'Woody' was borrowed from clarinettist Woody Herman. Even Allen's two adopted daughters, Bechet Dumaine Allen and Manzie Tio Allen, are named after jazz musicians. His idea for Manhattan (1979) originated from Allen's love of George Gershwin's music. His soundtracks are replete with golden-age jazz, from Garner to Bechet to Goodman. Also in Manhattan, Allen takes the opportunity to mention that Louis Armstrong's recording of Potato Head Blues is on his short list of things that make life worth living. He's right.

Woody Allen was born on December 1, 1935, as Allen Konigsberg, in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of 15, he started selling one-liners to newspapers and magazines, including the prestigious New Yorker, making $200 a week almost immediately. He moved on to write jokes for talk shows, and then to films. At 19, he began writing scripts for The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, and specials for Sid Caesar. By the time he was working for Caesar during the mid-1950s he was only just in his twenties. Reputedly he was earning $1,500 a week.
His first movie was What's New Pussycat? in 1965, but his disappointment with the final result led him to decide to direct every one of his subsequent films himself. Just like good jazz, his films are consistent. The early ones are almost all set in New York City, mostly Manhattan. They end with white-on-black credits, which don't scroll, are written in the Windsor font, and are accompanied by jazz. He films dialogue using lengthy, medium-range shots as opposed to intercut close-ups, and from Sleeper (1973) until Cassandra's Dream (2008), rarely are his movies scored. Instead he uses records from his personal record collection, with an emphasis on jazz from the swing era. In these choices he is consistently conservative. He also writes his scripts on a typewriter; he does not own a personal computer; he has his email account managed by assistants.

Woody began playing the clarinet at the age of 15. At 17, he persuaded Fats Waller's clarinettist Gene Sedric to give him private lessons for $2 an hour. Famously, Woody practises the clarinet indefatigably. "To be even as bad as I am, I do have to practise every day," he says. These days he uses a Buffet clarinet. The company revealed that after Woody toured their clarinet museum, he ordered two custom-built Albert system clarinets with silver-plated keys and carbon-fibre rings. Woody admits that he made the choice because that model gave his playing more volume, with a tone closer to his beloved New Orleans style. His favourite clarinettists include Johnny Dodds, George Lewis and Sidney Bechet. Not deaf to other jazz styles, he enjoys Benny Goodman (whom he knew), Artie Shaw, Count Basie and Glen Miller. In Sleeper he plays on the soundtrack himself, as a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Woody continues to play in New York on Monday nights, in the heart of Manhattan's Upper East Side, appearing at the Carlyle Hotel, located at 35 East 76th Street on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue, only a walk from where he lives. He appears with the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band. Allegedly, the house rule is that Woody cannot be addressed by any member of the audience. If someone does speak to him, they are automatically expelled from the room.

Be warned!

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal, January 2015. Used by kind permission of the editor. Reproduction forbidden.
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