ALLEN HOUSER has been blowing trumpet around this town for a quarter century, and the course of his early apprenticeship and subsequent professional career is a kind of capsule history of jazz itself--it has encompassed Dixieland, big bands, swing, R&B, Latin, cool, bebop, hard bop and neo bop.
Houser composes and produces his own albums, currently has an ongoing Friday, Saturday and Sunday gig at King's Alley in Silver Spring (with reed player Guigo Toro's Los Hijos del Sol Latin band) and will take his own Washington Jazz Ensemble into the Smithsonian Sunday for a brunch concert at 11 a.m. Joe Clark will be on tenor saxophone, Bob Balthis, valve trombone, Dave Kane, piano, Steve Novosel, bass, and Michael Smith, drums (call 357-3030 for ticket information).
A D.C. native, Houser has lived in the area for most of his life. He attended Alice Deal Junior High School and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School and was in the first graduating class of Walter Johnson High School in north Bethesda. He spent a year and a half in American Samoa beginning at age 5, when his father, a naval officer, was governor of the island.
"One of the young Samoans used to play Latin records and dance to them and I thought that was great," Houser recalls, "and my father knew all the old southern church hymns--he was from Georgia--and he would sing them to himself. And my mother's brother was a Dixieland trumpet player."
Houser visited his uncle in San Francisco when he was 11, and after the youngster returned to Washington, the uncle would send him albums of Harry James, Louis Armstrong and Wild Bill Davison. Houser soon put aside his harmonica and ukulele and took up the horn.
"I used to go down to the Charles Hotel at 13th and R when I was 15 or so--they had one of the best bands I have ever heard." It included trumpeter Kenny Fulcher, the late Slide Harris on trombone and the late Booker Coleman at the piano.
"They let me sit in, really treated me like I was already a musician." Louis Armstrong, trombonists Jack Teagarden and Earl Swope, pianist George Shearing and bassist Tommy Potter, among others, used to sit in at the Charles, an important jazz venue during the 1950s.
The teen-age trumpeter soon began to make the rounds of the other jazz clubs--the Seventh and Tea, Abart's and the Spotlite--where he heard Buck Hill, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Maynard Ferguson, Horace Silver and John Coltrane. "And that was it for me--that's when I started getting interested in modern jazz."
In high school Houser formed his first group, a quartet, which played an entire summer at a mountain resort in Orkney Springs, Va., for $30 a week apiece plus room and board. "About that same time I played with a church-sponsored big band called the Young Moderns. We used Stan Kenton and Bill Potts arrangements, and the band leader told me after I'd been with them about a year that I was the most improved player in the band."
At Dartmouth College, where Houser began as a pre-med student in 1958, his commitment to jazz continued and he put together "a sort of Gerry Mulligan-type group," again a quartet, and played fraternity houses and cocktail parties.
Houser and his partners were runners-up in a competition at the 1960 jazz festival at Notre Dame University and the next year were one of five groups selected for a similar contest at Georgetown University. Upon graduation in 1962 Houser gave up the idea of pursuing a career in medicine and moved to San Francisco, making the cross-country trek in a Volkswagen.
"At night I'd be going to all the jam sessions in the black clubs and sitting in"--with the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Dewey Redman and Groove Holmes.
He cites as an important influence the saxophonist Trevor Koehler. "He was a marvelous player and the first white guy I knew who was actually living the jazz life, not doing anything but playing and writing music. I used to follow his group around and play with them. I didn't make any money, but I was learning. And I was a bank teller during the day." Houser chuckles at that incongruity, but his voice clouds over as he relates that Koehler, who was with Gil Evans' big band for a while, "committed suicide in New York seven or eight years ago."
When Houser returned to this area in 1966 he encountered a different scene. "I used to sit in at Jazzland on 14th Street and all over the place, but I couldn't get any paying action going jazzwise--that was the rock era--and I started getting interested in Latin music."
He released his first album, "No Samba," in 1972--Buck Hill is on it--and has his third album "in the can." For a while he continued in the banking profession. "And then, in the mid-'70s, I decided to be a full-time musician and did nothing but practice for about three years," living on savings. In the past few years he has worked in an R&B "kind of shuffle band," has played with Latin groups, has been featured at concerts of the Charlin Jazz Society and has worked days in a tobacco shop. "So the jazz has always been going on."