It was not the way any journalist would want to introduce themselves to an artist they’re hoping to interview. A text from my friend, passing on Gwyn’s phone number, arrived on Valentine's Day. It read, "Here’s Gwyn’s number, Happy Valentines Day." So I text back, "Happy Valentines to you too, xx! Thanks for this. Can’t wait to catch up." Thirty seconds later, I’m staring at a message from a number that clearly isn’t stored on my cell phone. "Who dis?" it asks cryptically. I stare at the screen in disbelief, realizing the reply to my friend was inadvertently sent to Gwyn Jay Allen's telephone number instead.
The only kind of damage control I could think of was to call his number and try to explain myself. Cheeks burning with embarrassment I pressed dial. Gwyn picked up and was laughing so hard that he could hardly speak. "That’s brilliant" he said, "we’ve really got to do this interview now - let’s call it ‘My Funny Valentine.'" So that’s how we came to be sharing cheesecake and coffee while sitting on plump velvet armchairs in Starbucks, Kew Village, just under a week later.
As a beautiful, golden sunset sank in the sky over the world famous gardens, Gwyn was still laughing as he told me about the launch of his latest album from London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club on Soho’s Dean Street. "I’m telling my story, but Louis’ too," explained Gwyn.
The startling resemblance between Louis and Gwyn’s voices is just the starting point for an evening in Soho that explores all aspects of the men, private and public, sacred and profane. "Back o’ Town Blues" finds ‘Louis’ offering advice to the men in the audience on how to treat a woman right "else it’s gonna bounce right back on you " If you close your eyes, you’re transported straight back to New Orleans and the days when the good times rolled.
Tributes to Louis from his star-struck fan come in the form of "What a Man," the title track, "I Love Louis" and "Satchmo," which tell the story of an African-American man of the humblest origins becoming a world ambassador for jazz. These sunny-side up, swinging tunes are the fans’ eye view of the world of Louis Armstrong.
The wonderful Lauren Dalrymple, aka ‘Sista Big Cup, is drafted in to explore Louis’ complicated relationships with women. She and Gwyn recreate Louis and Velma Middleton’s twenty year partnership in "Someday," with just the right amount of appreciation of her dangerous curves from her co-star. The combination of Gwyn’s deep velvety chocolate, voice with Sista Big Cup’s honey-dripped caramel tones, is musical magic. She floats her high notes over the audience, releasing them like beautiful balloons. Fantastic! Quite the double act.
The exploration of the interior worlds of Allen and Armstrong provide the underlying emotional trajectory of the evening. "Black and Blue" was Louis’ take on the race issue. It’s a searing indictment of discrimination. "My only sin is in my skin " sings Gwyn. He explains, "It’s a difficult song to sing. It takes people to a place they don’t want to be, but it seemed important to play it. Louis got involved in a case of eight black students being denied access to higher education in Arkansas. He spoke out against inequality and paid the price. His licence to perform was taken away. It’s a side of the man that most people have no idea about."
In 1957, Louis visited the newly independent state of Ghana, embracing his West African roots. Gwyn’s own name is proof that his descendants had also been transported to the United States as slaves. They were part of a small group of freed slaves that made it back to Sierra Leone and formed the aptly named ‘Freetown,’ where his parents still live today. In his native tongue, Creole, Gwyn sings "Na So Dem Say," a song for anyone who has been told that they’ll "amount to nothing" in life and have gone on to prove their critics wrong.
Sierra Leone was also the inspiration behind the choice of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen" on his I Love Louis album, a track that Louis Armstrong also recorded on his sacred album, Louis and the Good Book - Decca 1958. In 1999, Gwyn travelled home to see his parents during the bitter civil war in Sierra Leone. He was kidnapped and interrogated at gunpoint and was forced to escape through Guinea, Senegal, and the Gambia before finally getting on a flight back home to the UK. "It was surreal. I just kept thinking about my wife and my two boys back in London. That, and my faith, got me through. It took me over a year after I returned before I could begin to talk about what had happened," explains Gwyn.
On the album, and live at Pizza Express, Gwyn gives the traditional, spiritual African drumbeat, insistent and full of portent. It’s music that sends chills up and down your spine. And after all this, Gwyn ends on Louis’ "Wonderful World," mopping his brow with a trademark white hankie just like Louis, and telling us that ‘life is for the living’. The arrangement is beautifully pared down, with a lovely, laid back guitar solo and shimmering piano accompaniment.
The recording of the album and the putting together of a formidable bunch of musicians all came about through Gwyn’s musical director/pianist and musical maestro, Alex Wilson. "We’ve been working together on and off since about 1995," Gwyn says. "He’s half Sierra Leonian and half English, and he’s got that mixture of cultures too. We understand each other so well. He lives through his ears. It just wouldn’t be possible to find anyone better."
The band Gwyn and Alex (Wilson) put together include Grammy award-winning trumpeter, Roy Hargrove, Neil Charles on bass, Troy Miller on drums, Barnaby Dickinson on trombone and Jo Caleb on guitar, plus Quentin Collins also on trumpet. They’re a fierce line-up as they’re happy to demonstrate on the swinging "Now You Has Jazz, arranged to showcase their talent. The track ends on a blistering rap from Sean Allen, one of Gwyn’s multi-musically, talented sons. Nathan Allen is a drummer who has shot to fame with Amy Winehouse, featuring on the award winning Back to Black album . He joins his father on stage at Pizza Express alongside Sean. Gwyn himself is a natural born entertainer, starring as Cab Calloway in a West End version of the Blues Brothers and wowing millions with his ‘Stars in their Eyes’ TV performance of Louis’ "All the Time in the World." They’re a musical dynasty in the making.
Gwyn and Alex also collaborated on a trip to Melbourne, Australia in 2006 to launch I Love Louis down under. It was all a bit last minute, "A producer from Australia rang and spoke to my agent, telling me that they wanted me out there in three days time! So Alex and I put a band together in two days and spent two and a half weeks out there. I loved it. Australians say what they mean, and mean what they say. I gave my first concert on the first day out there. There was a big after party and then they asked me to record an advertisement for TV I nailed it on the third take!’"
Gwyn and Alex played all over town to sell-out audiences in theatres, jazz clubs and on live radio. There are plans afoot for an Australian tour now, taking in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane with a stop-off in Japan thrown in. A two week tour of Malaysia is also in the offing. There’s talk of a documentary too. "The BBC has taken an interest, and an independent documentary maker. They’re asking the question, 'Why hasn’t the Louis Armstrong life story been told yet? How has this been missed?’" Gwyn tells me. There has been talk of shows on Broadway and Las Vegas too.
It seems that the threads of Louis and Gwyn’s lives are destined to ravel out together for quite some time to come and they both have quite a story to tell.