Although some movie patrons reacted in horror to the idea, thinking it was some kind of prank, the ten-year old Sam Allen was actually employed as a pianist for silent films, allowed to sit at the instrument and extemporize as the action unfolded on screen. He had already been playing for three years when he got this job, and in the next few years seemed to have absorbed plenty of slapstick hi-jinx and derring-do from the Hollywood sagas he accompanied. This would all come in handy when he began playing piano years later with the madcap jive jazz duo of Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart, known to their pals as Slim & Slam. At 19, pianist Allen headed for New York City and a stint with the Herbert Cowans band at the classy Rockland Palace venue. Within a year, he was back in his native Ohio and playing with Alex Jackson, staying with this group through 1930.
Shortly thereafter, he absorbed the intense experience of the ambitious James P. Johnson Orchestra, with whom he was employed as a second pianist: one keyboardist alone wasn't enough to play all the chords in the scores. For much of the '30s, he played with the dance band of Teddy Hill, including a European tour. This was followed by one of his most musically satisfying collaborations as piano man in the sometimes rowdy combo of violinist Stuff Smith. Combining this with the off-and-on shenanigans of Slim & Slam and the bebop hyper-drive of Dizzy Gillespie must have worn Allen out by the end of the decade. He relocated to Washington and completely shifted his focus from touring sideman to stay-at-home featured solo pianist. Maybe not quite relaxed enough, he then headed for California where he settled in on the Oakland jazz scene, often accompanying the fine singer Billie Heywood. ~ Eugene Chadbourne