Tony Allen, Late Progenitor of Afrobeat, Should Also Be Remembered as a Jazz Master
Tony Allen left us exactly one year ago, on International Jazz Day. It's quite a fitting way for a drumming icon to go out. How many artists can say they helped invent an entire style of music — a sound so potent that it became emblematic of his country (Nigeria) and continent (Africa), while also being a soundtrack for the pan-African movement worldwide?
That’s the power of Afrobeat, which Allen created alongside Fela Kuti. Yet despite these seminal achievements, why does it still feel like Allen’s legacy is underrated, especially in jazz circles? (I’m talking to you, NEA.)
Allen made his Blue Note Records debut in 2017, with a tribute to Art Blakey. The label will release a posthumous album on May 7, fittingly titled There Is No End. A collection of chopped-up Afrobeats, which mostly lay a bedrock for rhyming lyricists and vocalists, it lands a far distance from swinging. But it serves as a subtle reminder that Allen's beat is bigger than any genre, which is probably one of the many reasons he's not viewed often enough through a jazz lens.
On this episode of The Checkout, we'll pay tribute to Allen by highlighting some of our favorite tracks, tracing the evolution throughout his career. We'll also speak with Michael Veal, author of Feli Kuti's biography, who also cowrote Tony Allen: Master Drummer of Afrobeat.
We make the case that Tony’s approach to percussion — his dynamics, his emphasis on the hi-hat, his multi-limbed autonomy, his role of equilibration in ensemble playing — are in many ways connected to Blakey and Max Roach. Which makes sense, since those were the drummers Allen studied growing up in Nigeria, along with John "Jabo" Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, while also becoming fluent in the traditional sounds around him.
To further cement Allen's legacy as a jazz master, British keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones joins the conversation to discuss one of Allen's final masterpiece outings with another African jazz legend, Hugh Masekela. In our estimation, Rejoice, which was released last March, is undoubtably one of the best jazz records of 2020.