When Hurston interviewed him in the late 1920s, Kossula was living in a remote Alabama town, widowed for many years. He was deeply grateful that someone had come to document his life, hoping that someday his account might make its way back to West Africa, “and somebody dere say, ‘Yeah, I know Kossula.’” (Hurston faithfully transcribed Kossula’s narrative in dialect.)
It makes sense that Mr. Allen would release an album celebrating Kossula’s life, particularly on the 400th anniversary of Africans’ first arrival in British North America. He still feels the need, as a black American, to assert his right not only to exist, but to be known.
“And why is that important, for me? Because when I didn’t play, I didn’t exist,” he said. “Even to this day, I can walk past people I’ve known for years and if they don’t see me with the horn, they don’t know who I am.”
In an age when jazz musicians often chase grant funding to get by, forming new bands frequently and crafting a high-flown, conceptual conceit for each new album, Mr. Allen has a simpler goal: to voice his life through his music.
“We have to have some science project backing up what we’re doing?” he said. “I hate that word, project.”
O.K. But if his music were some kind of project, what would it be? What’s the long-term goal?
He paused, leaning back in his chair. “I want to just say I existed, man,” he eventually said. “I was here. This is a ‘J.D. was here’ on the wall. That’s all these records are.”
Articles in this series examine jazz musicians who are helping reshape the art form, often beyond the glare of the spotlight.