I had records by Allen Eager in my collection while I was in high school and the Army, so when I moved to New York City in 1950, I was excited when a friend introduced me to him. He was standing in a doorway on Broadway next to Birdland, wearing an old Loden coat, and was cordial but cool. That summer I was with Dave Lambert, driving up to the Catskills in a borrowed car to escape the heat of the city for a day. Dave knew where Allen’s mother owned a hotel, and we stopped by to see if Allen might be there. He was, and came bounding out to welcome us, dressed in a V-neck white sweater and tennis shorts. I couldn’t believe it was the same guy.
Some time later I was at Dave and his wife’s apartment on Monroe Street on the Lower East Side, and Allen dropped by, accompanied by his drummer friend Freddy Gruber. Dave had a tropical pith helmet hanging on his living room wall. Allen put it on, and immediately became a British big game hunter, improvising a hilarious monologue about trekking through darkest Africa. Freddy accompanied him by playing a pair of bongos that were on Dave’s end table. This was long before the sort of improvs at which Jonathan Winters used to excel, and I was delighted and amazed at Allen’s quick wit.
As I got to know him better, I realized that Allen was a chameleon. I knew him as a tenor player in the style of Lester Young, but found out that he had originally admired Ben Webster, and had been able to emulate his sound and style of playing. He even hunted Ben up, hoping to study with him. He went to Ben’s hotel room and played Ben’s solo from his record of Cottontail with Duke Ellington. Ben was amazed, and ran to the nearby rooms where other Ellington musicians were staying. “Listen to this white boy playing my solos!”
Ben wouldn’t teach Allen, but he let him hang around, and it became understood around the jazz scene that Allen was Ben’s protégé. Then Allen made a trip to California, where he heard and fell in love with the playing of Lester Young. He changed his mouthpiece and began playing with Lester’s tone and style. When he returned to New York, he got a gig on 52nd Street. Ben Webster went down to see him, and couldn’t believe what he heard.
In the early 1950s, Allen accepted someone’s invitation to spend a week in Aspen, Colorado. Allen had never been on skis before, but we got word that, after a week of learning the slopes, he had decided to stay a few more weeks because he’d been offered a job as a ski instructor.
One summer while I was playing a job on Cape Cod with Zoot Sims, Allen turned up one day carrying an alto sax. He sat in and played it very well, sounding a lot like Sonny Stitt. Then I didn’t see him for about a year, until one day, as I was walking across Sheridan Square in the Village, I heard the toot of a European car horn behind me. I looked around, and there was Allen, driving a Ferrari, and dressed in a stylish Italian suit and scarf, complete with designer sunglasses. I found out he was going with a wealthy young woman who had bought him the car.
She and Allen had been driving through Florida in the Ferrari, and noticed that races were about to begin in Sebring. On a whim, Allen registered for the race, and won his heat. When asked how he had driven so well when he had never raced before, Allen answered, “I read a book about it once.”
I heard that Allen married the girl, and he completely disappeared from the jazz scene. A couple of years later, I was playing a very posh affair at one of the grand East Side hotels, and among a crowd of elderly, wealthy dancers I suddenly was looking right into Allen’s face as he danced by with his wife. His expression was a clear message to me: “I won’t admit that I know you if you won’t admit that you know me.” They danced on by, and I never saw him again.
I did hear, about a year before I heard the news of his death in 2003, that he was living in Florida, had lost all his teeth, and was a born-again Christian.
Paul Winter sent me a note after the Bob Cranshaw memorial at St. Peter’s Church, with this story:
I was thrilled to get to say hello to Jimmy Heath later, back in the lobby-area. I hadn’t seen him for 57 years, since the summer of 1960, when I was still in college, and drove from Chicago to Philadelphia to look for him and ask if we could get some charts from him for the sextet I wanted to form. (My musical partner trumpeter Dick Whitsell and I had loved Jimmy’s first album, The Thumper.) Somehow we found Jimmy’s mother’s house, in the south side of Philly, and knocked on the door, and said: “Is Jimmy here?” and she said, “Yes, he’s down in the basement.” Jimmy was so knocked out that these two white kids had driven all the way from Chicago to see him, that he said he would sell us the seven charts from that album (the actual original parts – which I still have) for $10 apiece. We didn’t have $70, but I called my dad in Altoona and he sent the money Western Union.
So Jimmy said to me the other night, “Where’s my royalties?” and laughed, and said to the other guys standing nearby, “This guy took my music to the White House and it made him famous!”
On a duo gig at a restaurant Jay Leonhart and Bill Wurtzel were served one meal with a glass of wine. Jay asked for two straws. They got the message and brought food for two.