Jazzman Steve Allee
by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater
Of the people who have influenced Steve Allee’s life one was a stranger, a door-to-door accordion salesman doggedly canvassing a west-side Indianapolis neighborhood. He struck pay dirt that afternoon when his “music aptitude test” unearthed an enthusiastic nine-year-old boy.
“I loved accordion,” Allee says “I played it through high school, trying to pick out songs like Satin Doll and Caravan.”
Allee has devoted his life to playing, writing, arranging, producing and teaching music of all types—but his heart has always belonged to jazz.
He realized that one day while visiting his uncle, whose extensive record collection crossed every genre. Allee remembers the exact moment when the spirit of jazz first invested him. They were listening to It Ain’t Necessarily So by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. “I said, ‘Could you play that again?’ And when it was done, ‘Play that again.’ Masterful players playing very simply but right in the pocket. That was something that spoke to me.”
Soon after Steve began playing trombone in the school band but it wasn’t until a few years later that the final piece fell into place. That’s when his band director asked him to learn piano. Within two years he was studying with Indianapolis jazz legend Claude Sifferlen, a man he calls simply, “My mentor.”
Allee entered the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington but found himself constrained by his lack of classical training. Also by accepting a job playing six nights a week in Indianapolis to help support his new family. After a year of late night commuting and skipping classes Steve decided to devote himself exclusively to piano. “I’d love to go to college now,” he says. “But back then I was ready to just go out and play.”
Claude Sifferlen helped his student land a job traveling with Buddy Rich. So it was in Toronto that Allee heard the news. “I was number one in the Army draft lottery,” he laughs. “The only lottery I have ever won. My son David was born shortly thereafter.”
Upon his return Allee formed a trio with Sifferlen. “We had two keyboards, drums and sometimes a vocalist. One would play keyboard bass and organ and the other guy would play acoustic piano and electric piano. We had our own unique sound.”
The following summer they made a quartet with vocalist Mary Ann Moss, spending the next two years on the road. Stan Kenton’s drummer, John Von Ohlen, loved the two-keyboard sound so much that when he formed a big band using them as its core. “That band was together for about eight years. We did a recording on Seabreeze Records called Downtown Blues.”
Despite temptation Allee remained firmly rooted in Indiana. “We felt we were carrying on that musical tradition—Indianapolis as a jazz town,” he explains. He was asked to write an orchestra piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Indianapolis Museum of Art, an event he calls his “highlight of the ’80s.”
In 1988 Steve was asked to record piano for WFBQ’s popular The Bob & Tom Show. “Then they asked me to arrange a song and that led to Tom asking me to produce a song. Then Bob asked me to produce one of his songs,” Steve laughs. “I’ve been with them ever since.”
The award winning Bob & Tom Show has grown through the years from a local drive-time favorite to a syndicated program in 150 markets showcasing the raucous humor of Bob Kevoian and Tom Griswold. “Tom loves live musicians so we hire the best studio musicians in Indianapolis. I don’t know any other radio show in the country that’s doing that.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for me to arrange music in all styles, from string quartet to bagpipes.”
Another friend and collaborator he credits is Tom Borton. Borton produced Allee’s solo album, The Magic Hour in Los Angeles. This led to producing music for television, including shows like Touched By an Angel, and Nash Bridges, and the film New York in the Fifties, which Steve has released as a CD.
Allee is as busy now as he’s ever been. Besides being music director for Bob and Tom, “I have a 16-piece big band that I’m writing for. It performs every four to six weeks at the Jazz Kitchen (owned by son David) in Indianapolis. Frank is a great clarinetist and writer. I recorded five of my own songs last year and hope to release my own big band CD later this year. I also do some work with a trio and quartet.”
He also works with Jamey Aebersold, a saxophone player and an educator. His series of CD “Play-A-Longs” help students learn by giving them a good rhythm section to play along with. “I got to record his Miles Davis Play-A-Long, a double CD of Cole Porter, and a solo piano CD for vocalists.
“It is a little difficult juggling a full studio recording schedule and road appearances,” he admits. “I try to keep a balance. I’m thankful every day.”
Another blessing came with the purchase of his Brown County home. “I used to come down with my parents and grandparents for picnics in Brown County,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to live in the country but as I got close to fifty I thought—Is this one of those things that just isn’t going to happen?”
Then one winter’s day he and wife Carol got a call from their Realtor. “There was about two feet of snow when we first saw the house,” he remembers. “We couldn’t even drive down the driveway. We fell in love with it. We pinch ourselves every day.”
While seeing himself as preserving tradition Steve is excited about the young musicians coming into the field. “I want everybody to express the music that’s inside of them,” he says. “Expression is the important part. Expressing for an audience, even if it’s small. The music goes out and then comes back. That’s the circle of creativity.”
Steve will be playing at Bears Place in Bloomington with the Jamey Aebersold Quintet on Thursday, June 2 at 5:30 p.m., and at the Indianapolis Jazz Festival with David Allee on Fathers Day June 19 at 7 p.m. Information about purchasing Steve’s music can be found at <www.steveallee.com>.