Mose Allison had a sharp eye for the way the world works, and doesn't. The pianist, singer and composer's acerbic lyrics, syncopated piano playing and distinctive southern drawl were beloved by jazz fans — and by the British rockers who covered his songs, from The Who to The Clash to Van Morrison.
Allison died Tuesday morning at his home in Hilton Head, S.C., of natural causes. He had just had a birthday, his 89th, last week.
Allison was born on his grandfather's farm outside Tippo, Miss. He told NPR in 2004 that he began learning piano from a teacher in Tippo when he was 5 years old, but quickly grew tired of lessons. "As soon as I found out I could pick things out by ear, I lost interest in learning to read music and all," he said.
Allison was inspired by the blues musicians he heard around him, as well as by Nat King Cole, and combined those influences to create something distinctive. He wound up in New York City, playing with jazz stars like Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. When people heard him sing, they thought he was African-American.
"It doesn't matter whether you're black or white," he would say in response. "What matters is whether you're good."
He was good enough to record some 50 albums. But Allison said he never knew what to call his music, which is perhaps surprising for an English major. In that 2004 NPR interview, he chose to quote a novelist named Ishmael Reed.
"He wrote a book called Mumbo Jumbo," Allison says. "And he said that in New Orleans in the '20s, there was a virus that started out and it made you wanted to shake your behind and snap your fingers. and it just spread all over the world. And it just grew, so they called it 'just grew.'"
Allison had a hand — or two — in spreading it, too.