BY STEVE DILLS
“It was a blast,” said Sylvan Lake resident Eric Allison, who travelled to Miami on a quick trip recently to be inducted into the South Florida Jazz Hall of Fame.
Allison, who co-produces the annual Jazz at the Lake Festival at Sylvan Lake, joined members of the band he played with from the mid 1970s to mid 1980s — the Billy Marcus Quartet for the event. They were honoured in just the third year of the hall of fame. “We were the hottest jazz group in the Miami area for most of those years,” said Allison. “It was a good time for jazz clubs back then. There were lots of clubs, lots of jazz groups.”
At the induction ceremony, the band also played an hour-long set. “The original group probably hadn’t played together for years,” said Allison. “It was an hour of old hits, it was a blast.” He also got to see a lot of old friends and fans.
Allison left Sylvan Lake on June 9th, travelling all day to Miami for the Sunday event and then was on a flight home the next morning.
“I had no plans to go because it was so busy here with Jazz Fest and we’d just bought a new home and were moving. It was the worst possible time, but then I was getting phone calls from band mates saying it wouldn’t be the same without you.”
Allison is co-producer of the Jazz At The Lake Festival which is celebrating its 10th year in Sylvan Lake in August.
The Hall of Fame was created just three years ago by the Sunshine Jazz organization and singer Alice Day who’s a good friend of Allison and his wife, Cheryl Fisher. “She’s been a fixture in the South Florida scene for many years.”
Asked about the ceremony, Allison said, “Mostly I feel honoured to be inducted because it’s only in its third year of existence.” He added most of those who have been previously honoured wouldn’t be well known in this area. But he mentioned names of two who were inducted posthumously and might be remembered.
He joins the likes of ‘Jaco’ Pastorius who he describes as “possibly the greatest jazz electric bass guitarist who ever lived” and Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderly. “A fantastic alto sax player and band director.”
When Allison joined the Billy Marcus group in October 1975 he made it a quartet. It had previously been a trio. Marcus started as a single but had a dream of forming a group. He told the owner of the hotel where he was performing about his dream and eventually added bass and drums to play as a trio for about a year.
“I was working at a club around the corner, playing all kinds of different music,” said Allison. Everybody could sit in, he remembers. The entire back wall of the club was hung with instruments. One night Marcus came in and did just that.
“We played a couple of times and instantly hit it off. That was the beginning of not only a long standing professional relationship but also a personal relationship,” he said.
“I fronted the band, did the emceeing, talking, Billy was the pianist.”
Allison had headed to Miami from Chicago and was playing in his first jazz gig in Miami. “I was catapulted from that point on in the jazz scene down there.”
He said he always just wanted to be a player. He earned a Masters in Jazz Pedagogy and did teach jazz history and coach a group at the University of Miami for a term but “never really wanted to teach or planned to teach”. It was while at the University he met Fisher.
“The jazz scene was so active I was working five or six nights year round. Those were the good old days. I didn’t need to supplement with teaching.”
He added the whole live music scene is completely different now from what it was then. “It’s changed everywhere.”
“I thank my lucky stars I am the last generation of jazz musicians who could come up in the clubs, work five or six nights, hone my craft and refine my art,” Allison said. “That’s the only way to do it. I feel bad for younger musicians who don’t have that opportunity.”
Allison and Fisher moved to Sylvan Lake full time about two years ago but had split their time between Fort Lauderdale and Sylvan Lake for the previous eight years.
He said they were looking for Plan B when the U.S. economy crashed and Sylvan Lake became that plan.
But that hasn’t put an end to his playing career. “I’m still gigging. It’s been almost every weekend for the last two months, it’s been nuts,” he said. “The music is still there, it’s just not quite our main focus.”
The plaque presented to Allison at the Hall of Fame induction reads “Eric Allison, The Billy Marcus Quartet, in appreciation for the many years you have given for the cultural enrichment of the South Florida community and that of the world. The Love is Eternal.”
The quartet included Marcus (piano), Eric Allison (saxophone and flute), Don Mosely (bass), Gary Duchaine (drums).
Other inductees at the third annual ceremony were Blue Mitchell, Nancy Murphy, Melton Mustafa, Billy Rolle and Bill Peeples.