Allen Eager

Bright and inventive tenor saxophonist turned playboy
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The Independent Online

Allen Eager, saxophonist: born New York 10 January 1927; married (one son, two daughters); died Daytona Beach, Florida 13 April 2003.

"The Four Brothers" was a nebulous group of saxophone players, numbering from four to a dozen. Originally, the term was used to describe Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward and Serge Chaloff, the saxophone section in Woody Herman's band of 1948. But its use was expanded to include Allen Eager, Al Cohn, Brew Moore and a number of white players who had all been fervent disciples of the black tenor saxophone player Lester Young and adapted his style to the Bebop music of the late Forties.

But while Getz, Sims and Cohn went on to become great individualists, Eager let his early talents subside and drifted into obscurity. It was a chosen obscurity, for throughout his life he was a fast learner who, once he had mastered something, tended to lose interest in it.

Eager's family was wealthy, and this enabled him to live the life of a playboy for many years. On one occasion he went to a car dealer, bought a brand new Ferrari, drove it to Sebring in Florida and entered the classic race. He won his heat - a remarkable achievement in the international field, although he had never driven in a race before. "I read a book about it once," he explained. Similarly he went for a skiing holiday to Aspen, Colorado and, although he had never been on skis before, stayed at the resort for some time as a skiing instructor.

After hearing the Benny Goodman band on the radio as a boy, he had lessons on the clarinet. "His family had a hotel in the Catskills," recalls the bandleader Dave Pell. "I stayed there during the summer of 1938 and taught him to play the saxophone."

Eager became devoted to the music of Ben Webster, tenor player in the Duke Ellington orchestra, and learned all of his solos. He found the hotel where Webster was living in New York and asked Webster if he could study with him. He took out his tenor and played a perfect recreation of Webster's solo on Ellington's recording of "Cottontail". Webster ran down the hall and knocked on a friend's door. "Come and hear what this little white boy is playing!" he yelled. Webster refused to give lessons to Eager, but the youngster hung around and eventually became his protégé.

After jobs in bands led by Bobby Sherwood and Hal McIntyre, Eager joined Woody Herman in 1943 and later played with Tommy Dorsey. On a trip to Los Angeles, where he first played with Zoot Sims, Eager heard Count Basie's tenor player Lester Young and became fired with a new direction. He changed his mouthpiece and reed and picked up the softer Young style. When he returned to New York he had a job on 52nd Street and Webster went to hear him play. He couldn't believe the transformation and was bitterly disappointed by Eager's shift of loyalty.

Eager stayed on "The Street" and worked with the saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Pete Brown. He played also with the young practitioners of the new "modern jazz" Stan Levey, Max Roach, Al Haig and Red Rodney. He worked in the drummer Shelly Manne's band in 1945 until he formed his own band for the first time in 1946. This included the trombonist J.J. Johnson, the pianist Bud Powell and Max Roach, three of the main innovators in Bebop.

Eager played with Charlie Parker on many occasions and in 1948 recorded with Fats Navarro and Wardell Gray as part of composer Tadd Dameron's experimental band. Later he played with Gerry Mulligan and Terry Gibbs, recording with both of them, and Buddy Rich. From 1953 onwards Eager led a band in New York, with a long residency at the Open Door Club (1954-55).

Like many of the musicians with whom he worked at that time he became addicted to heroin. He decided in 1956 to conquer the habit and moved to Paris, thinking a change of scene might help. He took up the alto saxophone, neglecting his tenor playing and, understandably, was never able to bring it back to its former brightness and inventiveness. Returned from France, he recorded once more with Mulligan in 1957. It was at this period that he indulged his whims for skiing and motor racing.

In 1972 he retired to Florida with his family. He played only sporadically after that, mainly in Miami, until 1982 when he resumed his career, touring overseas and visiting Britain on a couple of occasions to play at Ronnie Scott's Club in London. He made an album, Renaissance, for the Uptown label in 1982, but the old brilliance was no longer there and his heart didn't seem to be in his playing.

Steve Voce