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The Meanest Genius in Portland, Maine

Outsider jazz great Allen Lowe scorns his neighbors, argues endlessly with himself

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Mel Bochner, Irascible, 2006, oil on velvet, 36.5 X 47.5 inches. Private Collection. Artwork © Mel Bochner. (From the exhibition catalogue, Mel Bochner: Strong Language, co-published by The Jewish Museum, NY, and Yale University Press, 2014.)

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It was a bleak January morning in Portland, Maine. Clouds heavy with foul weather and wet snow enshrouded the city’s stern Victorian houses and dormant factories. Casco Bay, white-capped and gray and dotted with mournful tankers, blew an icy gale. In the lobby of the Holiday Inn, where I was staying, wildly cheerful out-of-towners, members of a booster club for a visiting minor-league hockey team, milled about, looking beefy and hungover. Stacks of complimentary USA Today gathered dust at strategic locations. A Mainer—I swear he was wearing a flannel shirt and one of those plaid hunting caps with the earflaps—was drunk at 8 a.m. and arguing with a receptionist that he’d accused of stealing his medications.

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Allen Lowe—late-blooming jazzman, self-taught music-historian, and 20-year disgruntled Portland resident—looked downright merry. Lowe, 60, a lopsided and harrumphing grin half-hidden behind his profusion of graying hair and beard and the Brezhnev-ian shrubbery of his eyebrows, had plenty about which to be cheerful. In 2013, he published two deeply researched histories of the blues and rock ’n’ roll, Really the Blues?: A Horizontal Chronicle of the Vertical Blues, 1893–1959 and God Didn’t Like It: Electric Hillbillies, Singing Preachers, and the Beginning of Rock and Roll, 19501970. Critic Greil Marcus called Really the Blues? a “crucial contribution to American culture,” adding that “all those who want to see our musical history whole are in [Lowe’s] debt.” Matt Glaser, the artistic director of the American Music Roots Program at the Berklee College of Music, has also said that “Lowe knows more about early American music—the development of it, the relations between rural and urban music, white and black music, white and black repertoires—than anyone in the field, including myself.”

His most recent album, released in February, is Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings: 1–4 (or: A Jew at Large in the Minstrel Diaspora), a sixty-two-cut, four-CD whopper of a free jazz album. As is typical for Lowe, Field Recordings comes with a 32-two-page, 13,000-word treatise-in-the-form-of-liner-notes, a dense, fact-rich, at times inscrutable, musical-historical-sociological elucidation that often outdoes the song it describes. Here, for example, is a sample of the information provided for the song “Jim Crow Variations–1”:

The ties of jazz, not to mention all of American vernacular music, to dance are, of course, well known and amply documented. Of particular interest in this respect is Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress lecture/demonstration on Tiger Rag. Morton demos Tiger Rag as something that came out of the old-time Quadrille, a dance which had, in its outline, a 19th-century, debutante-formal gravity. Through his auspices and under questioning by Alan Lomax we hear, on these Library of Congress recordings, Tiger Rag morph into something both very different and yet very much the same—dance music that starts to swing and gradually become jazz, yet which retains certain old-time gestures and ideas of rhythm and melody. This is the American vernacular in action, as something actively engaged in both transformation and reaffirmation, a conservative impulse overwhelmed by the idea of cultural progress (which almost sounds like a definition of African American music). Significantly, it is also a precious piece of the 19th-century prehistory of American pop and jazz.

In recognition of this intensely creative, old-time-y outpouring, the Maine Arts Commission named Lowe one of its Artist Fellows in 2012. This generous grant program includes a $13,000 financial honorarium given each year to four artists in the entirety of the state to “reward artistic excellence [and] advance the careers of Maine artists.”

Yet none of this has brought Lowe any happiness. And allow me to be plain: He is not a cult figure or an underground phenomenon or an artist on the verge. Most of his books are self-published at a self-created imprint he’s dubbed Constant Sorrow Press. He plays few gigs, none of them in Portland, where he’s burned all conceivable bridges to the local arts and music community. He conducts his scholarly work not in a university setting with access to a well-stocked library but in the cold and very messy basement of his home. He works for an insurance company.

Still, most folks given a large check earned “on the sole basis of artistic excellence” might consider an expression of gratitude and a quick sprint to the bank. Not Lowe. It seems somehow to have pissed him off a bit, or at least provoked the aggrieved sense of humor—part personality quirk, part malignant DNA strand—which may be culturally familiar to some, but apparently translates not at all into the society and community here in Maine. Lowe has called his musical projects “an argument with someone, real or imagined.” These disputes can take arcane forms—he’s had a one-way beef going with Wynton Marsalis for close on two decades—but they all serve the same function: as an opposing force that Lowe, in turn, uses to create. He strikes the world here and there until the resulting friction throws a spark, which serves as the flashpoint for his art.

Lowe has at times diverted that resulting blaze in, shall we say, rather indelicate directions. His bio on the Maine Arts Commission website includes a reference to the state’s “lack of historical awareness,” plus a bit on how the locals tend toward a form of “musical in-breeding” that leads to “the exclusion of those whose work is not immediately accessible.”

‘Through no fault of his own’ Lowe has become ‘jazz’s quintessential outsider artist.’

Lowe bemoans the fact that his grant didn’t result in more work in regional clubs and arts institutions. He assumed he’d finally be taken seriously and that he could play where he wanted, make a little money, make a name for himself. “But I got nothing. I’m a permanent outsider.” Just so. But Lowe bears some responsibility for that. His personal website offers this tidbit about the 2007 album, Jews in Hell (I’m going to omit the lengthy subtitle, other than to note that the hell in question is Maine and that it includes noncomplimentary references both to Stanley Crouch—long story—and a prominent Portland-based modern-arts venue): “[I]n many ways, this CD was intended as a big FUCK YOU to Maine [and] to its arts institutions.”

So, perhaps there is more than joy and amity to be seen in the face that Lowe Lowe shows to the world.

“Hop in,” he says as I let myself into his car. “I’ll give you a tour of all the places I hate.”

***

Lowe conducts me around Portland’s pleasant downtown, whipping past various clubs and galleries and other art spaces and raining amiable opprobrium on all of them. One place “won’t hire anyone over 25.” Another, which receives funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Maine Arts Commission, he dismisses as no more than a spot for “bad art films.” At One Longfellow Square, a live music nonprofit, he remarks on the demise of its predecessor, the Center for Cultural Exchange, which failed in 2006. “I wouldn’t call it suicide—more like murder.” The New England Conservatory of Music won’t return an email, but he won’t be ignored. He opposes and disdains and covets approval, all at the same time.

Lowe grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island, in a house of what he described to me as mid-century Jewish intellectual-liberals. His parents—dad a public-school teacher, mom a librarian with a doctorate—hailed from the Brooklyn folk-villages of Brownsville and Bensonhurst. Mother played piano, trained as a youth with Paul Wittgenstein, the one-armed concert pianist and brother of Ludwig, the Austrian philosopher. Lowe studied the oboe as a young child, without devotion. At 13 he spent the summer at a music-themed summer camp and afterword took up the sax. His interest in contemporary music grew.

“I was extremely lucky,” Lowe told me. “That period from 1966–’70, jazz is dying from the rise of rock ’n’ roll. For an innocent boy like me it was perfect. All the jazz records were on sale for cheap. $1.99, they’re overpriced.” He’d forage albums out of a bin at the Waldbaum’s in Bar Harbor. Chased Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman down the musical rabbit hole. He was particularly taken with early avant-garde. “Coltrane spoke to me and still does. I wanted something a little bit more harmonically based, a little less free, but structured.” At 15, he snuck into the city a few times with a bunch of friends, driving someone’s VW bus, to see Mingus and Ornette play at Slug’s Saloon, a legendary jazz spot on an Alphabet City block run by Hell’s Angels. Saw Zappa with his mother, Muddy Waters on the lawn at Newport, Miles Davis with his electric band, B.B. King with Michael Bloomfield at the Fillmore East. Strong sense of identification with Bloomfield, the guitarist. “We’re alike in many weird ways. A wiseass Jewish guy, never hit his stride.” He never imagined himself taking up music professionally. He just listened. Obsessively. Eight hours a day sometimes.

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The Meanest Genius in Portland, Maine

Outsider jazz great Allen Lowe scorns his neighbors, argues endlessly with himself