In an era when jazz genius descended on New York in waves, The Bronx-born Eager stood out on 52nd Street in the mid- and late 1940s as one of bebop's leading swingers. Before Zoot Sims became Zoot Sims, before Al Cohn became Al Cohn and before Stan Getz became Stan Getz, Eager was one of the hottest New York tenors. What set Eager apart was that he was first in the East to adapt the Lester Young sound. (Wardell Gray was an equally early Young exponent on the West Coast.) Eager's high visibility in the hippest circles had a significant influence on many other tenor players who also fell under the spell of Young's horizontal, scale-centric approach. Even Dexter Gordon was influenced by the peppery Eager. [Photo, top, of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Allen Eager and Kai Winding by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com; Photo of Lester Young by Herb Snitzer]
Eager was enormously ambitious early on, and in 1943, the year he turned 16, he played in the bands of Bobby Sherwood, Sonny Dunham, Shorty Sherock and Hal McIntyre--joining Woody Herman by year's end. At 18 he was with Johnny Bothwell [pictured, right], and a year later, in February 1946, Eager recorded with Coleman Hawkins for RCA. What's most notable about this session is that Eager was able to record his own bop composition, Allen's Alley, alone--with Hawkins and Charlie Shavers sitting out. The song became a bop standard and was retooled by Charlie Parker as Wee.
Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings followed, along with sessions in the late 1940s with Red Rodney, Buddy Rich. Stan Getz and a series with Tadd Dameron and Fats Navarro. Eager also fronted his own recording dates. In the 1950s, Eager recorded with Tony Fruscella, Howard McGhee and Oscar Pettiford. But as the music changed, Eager did not, and the hard-core bebopper stopped recording in the late 1950s until the early 1980s.
There were other issues as well. In 1948, Leonard Feather described Eager as a Jekyll and Hyde, ..."his Dr. Jekyll is an amusing, well-read and highly articulate guy, while the Hyde side is a typical gloomy product of the frustrations and neuroses of 52nd Street, with ornithological overtones." In other words, drug addiction was undermining Eager's potential.
While there is no such thing as a bad Allen Eager recording, the live sessions collected on Allen Eager: In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee are special. The album opens with a 1953 radio recording at the Hi-Hat Club in Boston, hosted by disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin. Eager's horn jumps on This Time the Dream's on Me, Out of Nowhere and Zootcase. The big surprise here is the stunning piano work of Dick Twardzik, whose imaginative playing and swing grab you instantly. Dig Twardzik's crazy chord changes on the song introductions! Sadly, Twardzik died two years later of a heroin overdose while on tour in Europe with Chet Baker.
Next up is a 1949 CBS-TV recording featuring Eager and Buddy Rich playing Eager's Some Blues.
The balance of the CD is devoted to recordings made in 1947 at photographer Milton H. Greene's studio in New York. Eager is joined by a range of musicians, including trumpeter Johnny Carisi, baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff and Buddy Rich. Perhaps the most intriguing of the sessions features Eager, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Specs Goldberg and Max Roach. On Swapping Horns, Eager plays alto sax while Parker plays tenor. The two return to their main instruments on All the Things You Are and Original Horns.
If you want to hear what made Eager special, this CD of live recordings is most illuminating. The more you listen to it, the more you come to realize that swing was only part of Eager's appeal. His inventive improvised melody lines and timing--knowing when to allow for space--were also on the money. Eager's horn is the sound of someone having a ton of fun. And it's still catching. Eager died in 2003.
JazzWax tracks: Allen Eager: In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee 1947-1953 (Uptown) can be found at iTunes or here. Go for the CD. The 68-page booklet that accompanies the CD features rare photos and extensive notes by Ira Gitler and producer Robert Sunenblick.
JazzWax clip: Here's Allen Eager and Serge Chaloff on The Goof and I from this Uptown CD, with Buddy Rich on drums. Listen carefully to how Eager (on tenor) comes in and out with the precise pacing of a boxer throwing jabs and right crosses...