Allen Won goes from jazz to Broadway

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The first thing you get from meeting and talking with the East-Coast-based saxophonist Allen Won is an incredible sense of modesty about his talents and his accomplishments. He’s the first one to put himself in place as a faker, to downplay his innate jazz fluidity, and to laud others as the real deal. Chalk that up to his local boy roots. Won is one of many Hawaii residents who ventured out onto the Mainland and beyond, and made a name for himself doing what he loves best, playing good music with good, solid musicians. Local boys don’t brag.

The fact that he is a part of a much-heralded group of musicians from the Tony-award-winning Broadway musical, Hair, a group which has been known to take off on a red-eye to L.A. to film the Conan O’Brien show, for free, and flown back on their one and only day off, and gets to work in one of the greatest cities in the world … is never made into a big deal. That’s a big deal, considering Won is in an industry littered with overblown egos and smooth-talking hustlers majoring in the art of Narcissism.

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He won’t tell you about the gazillion celebrities, jazz greats and assorted other big deals he’s used to seeing or cavorting with — unless pressed. So, I pressed him, and learned so much about the man, the musician and the musical environment he surrounds himself with in an often unforgiving city shy with its treasures but impossible to resist. Allen Won knows, he’s been trying to figure out a way to get back home to Hawaii for over 20 years now.

I know you as the guy who does the Broadway musical, “Hair,” along with the rest of the talented orchestra. But you’re about much more. How’d a local boy from Hawaii end up in NYC and end up staying there?

I ended up in NYC through pure chance as I see it. I was slated to attend USC in the fall of ’78. However, my teacher to-be called me in the spring of ’78 to say he was not going to be at USC in the fall; rather, he was going to be in NYC teaching at the Mannes College of Music. I was terrified because it was New York, but also I didn’t know what my parents were going to say! Well, the story turns out to be that my mom and dad acquiesced to send me to New York to study.

Now I have to admit that they were intending for me to return after my graduation from Mannes. Believe me they tried, for 20 years! I just realized that I could make a living in New York as a player. I had started to work in New York after my first year there. So, I reasonably figured that this would continue. I never thought that it would be difficult, but I was too stupid to realize or too afraid to admit it to myself.

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How did you transition from a jazz sax player to a regular on Broadway?

As far as me being a jazz player, I think I need to clear that one up. I personally don’t consider myself as a jazz player. I know too many who are and are dedicated to that art form and that form alone to be placed in the same category. I prefer to say I play music. I was trained in the orchestral style and just happened to have a pretty good feel for playing other types of music. So, as far as B’way goes, that kind of versatility served me very well. I can fake a lot of different styles convincingly, so that puts me in the good graces of a few conductors and players.

The B’way thing is a story in and of itself. It took me 20 years to break into the scene. And not because I couldn’t play. Politics and good old boy connections were lacking in my case. They still are! Hah! But through the good graces of two friends, I got a chance and became an overnight sensation. Yeah, right.

As far as me being a jazz player, I think I need to clear that one up. I personally don’t consider myself as a jazz player. I know too many who are and are dedicated to that art form and that form alone to be placed in the same category. I prefer to say I play music.

Can you describe some of your more memorable Broadway gigs for those of us who don’t know what it’s like?

Working the Great White Way does have certain perks. When you are in a hit show, everyone in show biz wants to see it. So I have had my share of seeing certain people at the shows. Walter Cronkite, Dr. Ruth, Madeleine Albright, the Clintons. Lots of movie stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Goldie Hawn, Kevin Bacon, Keanu Reeves, Harvey Keitel, etc. Musicians: Aretha Franklin, the 5th Dimension, Ben Vereen, etc. Lots of people show up.

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You lived in NYC in your early years during school and a little after, right? What was that like, to live and work in the big city?

NYC was a very different place when I first moved [there]. It was the fall of 1978, a year after the riots and burnings in the Bronx and the blackout. The city was in very bad shape, almost bankrupt. Sleaze and drug pushers everywhere. You couldn’t walk along Central Park in the good areas, CP South and CP West along from 59th Street to 79th Street without getting propositioned or mugged! But the city had a lot of character. Many of the jazz legends were still alive and you could hear them playing in tiny clubs on the lower East Side and see them walking around.

So living in NYC, you learned to take the train/subway to get to gigs. That was a challenge as well. Late nights were not a time to be on trains alone. Lucky for me, I was never bothered. But it was exciting to go to work at the Copacabana on East 60th Street and after my set, Redd Foxx would appear. Or working at the Plaza and seeing all kinds of people from who knows where. Parties, which is what I did for many years, had their share of characters. Supermodels, fashion designers, mafioso, politicians — state and national. Once, I was supposed to play at an engagement where Fidel Castro was to speak. And speak he did. He was a big man, very tall and very charismatic. Lots and lots of secret service with big bulges under their arms.

The Tony-award-winning “Hair’s” still going strong and receiving rave reviews from critics, especially about the harmonious blend of the singers. How does working on this musical compare to some of the others you’ve done?

HAIR is very different from every other musical I’ve done or will do. First of all, I have known and worked for composer Galt MacDermot for 30 years now. He’s like my musical father. Galt likes his music to swing and be fresh every time you play it. Unheard of on B’way. I get to improvise and loosen up my phrasing, depending on how the rhythm section is feeling that night. It’s really an experience of a lifetime.

How has your knowledge and experience of jazz music helped in your playing in Broadway musicals? Do you think you had a bit of a head start compared to other non-jazz musicians going into the orchestra pit?

Nothing compares to understanding and experiencing different musical styles when working in New York. And I think New York really has a large population of players who know how to play in a variety of styles. I was lucky to have been seated next to some really wonderful players who toured and performed with the legends of jazz. Jazz is still an art form that is aurally oriented. You can only really play it by hearing it done by someone who is a master. So because of my many experiences, I can sit in a section and play pretty convincingly.

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You also have/had a jazz quartet and produced some CDS of your own. What’s going on there? Do you still have time to work on your own jazz stuff?

As far as playing my own music well, that’s a challenge. The show takes up a lot of room in the day, as well as in the head. Staying creative is not easy to do without a full-time gig. But with one, it challenges one to really stay focused. Needless to say, I am not very good at it, but I try nevertheless. The show has sort of settled a bit, so I think it’s safe to say I can and will be writing and practicing my own stuff soon. It’s really hard though.

Ever think you’ll be back home in Hawaii?

Hawaii is still home for me. Even after 30 years and now I have a home and a family here, I still feel as though I’m camping. Yes, my plan is to return to Hawaii someday. Just don’t know when yet!

What are some of your influences growing up? Why jazz and not, say, rock or pop or blues?

My influences are all over the map. My dad being in the military listened to country and western, so I got a bit of that twang in my soul. Frank Sinatra was also my dad’s biggest singer. I know why now. He laid it down for everybody. I was introduced to classical music early on by my father’s only sister, who was a great opera singer. I mean, you can’t play modern music without understanding European Classical music. Everything we play here or at least I play has its roots in this.

I love music of every kind that has commitment. It’s got to swing. Got to have a beat. It’s got to say something and touch people. If it doesn’t, then stay home and leave it to someone who has passion. I hope to have passion in my playing every time I pick up the horn.

Interview first appeared in Examiner Oct. 26, 2009.

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