SOLANA BEACH — Steve Allen sings jazz, leads bands, plays piano, writes volumes of songs, authors books and more.
And while this output in itself is impressive, what makes it even more so is that Allen is 68, shows no sign of slowing down and does all this while needing 11 hours sleep a night.
"I wish I were at the other extreme," he said, referring to Type A personalities that get by on 3 or 4 hours sleep, "but we have no control over our sleep cycles."
On Thursday, Allen will be at the Belly Up in Solana Beach for two shows (7 and 9:30 p.m.) featuring his original jazz with the local Benny Hollman Big Band.
"I like to play at least a few jazz dates a year," Allen said by phone from San Antonio, Tex., where he was performing comedy and music on a bill with Debbie Reynolds. "If there were three or four of me, one would be out playing every night."
Allen has written plays and scores for several musicals, starred in a Broadway play, composed classical music for symphony orchestras, recorded more than 40 albums and written and hosted the Emmy-winning public television series "Meeting of Minds."
In his spare time, he has also dashed off more than 4,000 songs. In ball park figures, that works out to 100 songs each year for 40 years, roughly two songs per week.
Most musicians would kill to have that kind of dedication, but Allen insists his prodigious output--including "This Could Be the Start of Something Big," "South Rampart Street Parade," "Picnic" and "Impossible"--has nothing to do with discipline.
"I write constantly. People think I start with blank paper or tape, and with hard work, note by note, contrive a song. But that has nothing to do with how the process occurs. To me, it's all on automatic pilot. It doesn't require my will. There's no conscious intention, they just come to me. I frequently dream songs. The classical instance is 'This Could Be the Start of Something Big.' The melody and the first few lines came to me in my sleep."
Allen is not sure why he is gifted with this creative wellspring, this awesomely active muse.
"Nobody has ever come up with the answer to that question," he said. "All the philosophers, major and minor, have dealt with that and have come up mostly with garbage. Among the classical theories is that God deserves credit for the creation of music.
"That hypothesis is absurd. I assume there is a God, but at least 95% of what is produced is trash. I don't think we want to start blaming God for the great wave of garbage that inundates us every day."
Allen's big-band arrangements are written to take full advantage of a classic big-band lineup: five saxes, four trumpets, three trombones and a rhythm section.
"If you like Count Basie's music, that's the kind of music I write. I conduct on some, play on some, sing on some. I'll probably sing, 'This Could Be the Start of Something Big' and 'Until I Left Chicago I Never Had the Blues.' "
Allen's music has been recorded and performed by Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Andy Williams, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, among others. Another tie to jazz was his 1955 starring role in the movie "The Benny Goodman Story."
"I met him a little bit," Allen said of Goodman, who died in 1986. "But no one ever hung around with Goodman. Benny really exists in the American consciousness as a great jazz clarinetist. As a human being, he's a myth. He was a very weird cat. I didn't do this interview to shock the world by saying he was not a nice fellow, but he was not."
Over the years, Allen's music has occupied only a portion of his time. A pioneer of television, he created "The Tonight Show" in the mid-'50s before "The Steve Allen Show" began airing in 1956. Beginning this month, 100 episodes of "The Steve Allen Show" are being shown on "HA! The TV Comedy Network."
Allen hosted several jazz musicians on the show, but their performances have been cut in editing the hour-long programs to a half-hour for airing on the cable television comedy network.
"I sat in with a lot of guys. Anyone can do that if they've got a talk show and happen to play something. A guy came up to me at an airport recently and said, 'I love your new album with Art Tatum.' I said, 'Thank you, but I never made one.' It turned out he was right. Someone had had the good luck to make recordings of Tatum's various appearances on radio and television shows and put out an album recently. There's one really exciting track where Tatum and I trade choruses on 'Lady Be Good' on 'The Tonight Show' around 1955."
While the talk shows provided some great experiences and branded Allen as father of the format, he doesn't consider them great achievements.
"The 'Tonight Show' formula hasn't changed much. It's a very easy way to make a living. It's impossible to do a bad job. I've always felt a little uncomfortable being praised for inventing that, although I did. It's like being praised for inventing the paper clip. It's an accomplishment, but a minor one.