Talk to performer Jassen Allen and a kind of sweetness coupled with gratitude and confidence are on display.
Allen, 47, has been in Las Vegas for 12 years. He’s been singing for Vegas audiences for just seven of those years, but behind him were experiences as a performer that took him throughout the world.
Allen was born in Des Moines, Iowa. His parents, Barry Cropp and Denise Hopkins, sent Allen (his full name is Jassen Allen Cropp) to Catholic grade school. Always an eager (translation: loud and clear) church singer, Allen was spotted by a teacher and choir musician, Molly Tedesco, who took Allen under her wing. Allen’s parents were divorced when Allen was 11. Tedesco encouraged the young man’s singing, hoping he’d be another Simon Estes, Iowa’s renowned Black bass baritone. Tedesco even convinced Allen to enter the famous Blll Riley Talent Shows at the Iowa State Fair. “I never won the talent shows but I got better and better and learned how to be an individual performer,” said Allen.
At 15, Allen, his mother and brother Damon moved to Omaha, Nebraska where Allen was enrolled in public school. The new school initially was not welcoming. Even the other Black students didn’t know what to make of the big kid from Des Moines who had attended a Catholic school.
Another teacher, Mary Lou Jackson, saved the day. After hearing Allen sing, she then made sure he was in the school’s mixed chorus, then the concert choir and finally in an elite group called “The Ambassadors”.
“I actually hated going to school and even got a C in choir,” Allen recalled. “The teacher talked with Mom and I got the message about studying if I wanted to keep singing.”
Allen remembers how uncomfortable he felt riding the school bus every day, but one day he and some other kids started singing on the bus, and everything changed. Allen was recognized as a boy with talent and people wanted to be around him.
In high school, Allen took theater classes and learned about Broadway. He was cast in a high school production of, “The Sound of Music, “ where he had one line, “I am not German; I am Austrian”.
That one line led Allen to auditioning and being cast as a lead in a high school production of “Anything Goes” and later as Walter Lee Younger (the Sidney Poitier role) in the non-musical, “Raisin in the Sun”. Allen also remembers being in a school pops concert singing “One More Try” by George Michael and receiving a standing ovation. After his awkward start, Allen had found a home. He became so popular, in fact that he almost became Homecoming King and was voted senior class vice president.
During his senior year in high school, Allen saw a performance of the Scarlett and Cream Singers from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln (UNL). He was so taken by the group that combined singing, dancing and comedy that he vowed to go to UNL and someday be a part of that group.
With the help of a couple of music scholarships and loans, Allen was accepted at UNL as a music education student. Unfortunately, he hated school. On the first day of one of his music classes, the instructor asked, “Who knows what the Circle of Fifths is?” Lots of hands went up; Allen had no clue about the phrase and wondered if, in fact, the class has started several weeks before without him.
Allen had a difficult time because most of the other music majors were trained musicians or trained singers, and knew far more than he did. Allen struggled, although he did audition for the Scarlet and Cream Singers. He was not accepted in the group, and was told rather frankly, that to perform with a “show choir” he could not be as large as he was at the time.
Allen was devastated at not being chosen because of his size, so he went on a strict diet, lost 60 pounds, auditioned again and was accepted in the group. He attended one week of group training before receiving the news that because of his grades, he was academically ineligible to return to school for at least six months.
From the high of high school and acceptance into Scarlet and Cream, the six months’ suspension was a terrible blow. Allen had nasty discussions with his father; he was trying to figure out who he was personally; he certainly could no longer identify as a student. “My life was a mess,” he recalled.
But down was not out for Allen.
Upon being readmitted to school, the academics improved and Allen was welcomed back into Scarlet and Cream . He spent a year with the group and even toured Nebraska. In the summer following his sophomore year, he was one of eight members of Scarlett and Cream chosen to perform for the Department of Defense and entertain troops serving in the Gulf War. Never having been outside of the Midwest, Allen was suddenly traveling to Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, and Spain performing. He loved it. At the end of the summer, Allen knew he wanted to perform full time. He did not return to UNL
Following a path led by many others, Allen’s first performing jobs as a young singer were with theme parks in Texas and Florida. From there, Allen’s next stop was as a production singer on first one cruise-ship line then another. On board the ships, he sang in original productions and Broadway-based shows.
On one ship he replaced a singer named Travis Cloer, the same Travis Cloer who later starred in “Jersey Boys” in Las Vegas and became a friend.
In all, Allen spent 10 years performing on cruise ships and seeing the world. At the end of those 10 years, Allen decided the time had come to settle down….on land.
He chose Los Angeles as the city to help with the next phase of career. Although he did get performing jobs in Los Angeles, he, like many actors and entertainers, also became a “very good” waiter with customers (including some celebrities) asking for “that funny guy” to wait on them.
Among Allen’s favorite jobs in Los Angeles, he was cast in the Civic Light Opera’s award-winning production of “Dream Girls”. In the cast was Billy Porter, a man whose singing and career had inspired Allen. Allen also hooked up with an event-planning firm and became a popular singer for fancy weddings and special events everywhere from Los Angeles to Europe.
The best thing about Los Angeles for Allen? He met a man there, Ross Rech, who has been Allen’s life partner for the past 17 years.
Even with work and a good relationship, Allen wasn’t totally comfortable in Los Angeles. When Allen said he wanted to leave California and try Las Vegas, Rech was willing to take the gamble as well.
Both men had waited tables in Los Angeles and both were instantly employed in Las Vegas. “I have to say, we were good at our jobs,” Allen adds.
The opening of the Red Rock Resort in 2006 and its Terra Rossa Italian Restaurant was where Allen landed. He loved the job and made good money, so for five years Allen’s career as a performer took a back seat to comfort. A transfer to Terra Verde Restaurant at Green Valley Ranch brought Allen in contact with a piano player/singer named Kenny Davidsen, also relatively new to Las Vegas. Allen occasionally sang while Davidsen played at Green Valley Ranch’s Hank’s steakhouse.
On a trip to New Orleans with Rech, Allen, as a surprise for his partner, volunteered to sing at an open mic night. “I sang ‘Georgia on my mind’ and when I looked in the audience, I saw Ross’s face staring at me admiringly as if he had never heard me sing before. I knew right then, I no longer wanted to wait tables.”
Meeting Kenny and also reuniting with Lorena Peril, whom Allen had met on one of the ships, brought Allen back to the stage. “I’m tired of you not doing anything,” said Peril, lead singer with Fantasy at the Luxor. Peril invited Allen to share a stage with her at a local benefit. All went well.
Changes at the restaurant coupled with the thrill of an audience reaction gave Allen the courage to quit his job as a waiter and reignite his singing career.
Allen’s first year as a full-time performer was rough. He sang at as many open mics in and out of town as he could. He spent some weekends traveling back to California for weddings and events. In Las Vegas, if Allen didn’t appear for free, he took on $100 gigs. (“Vegas has a lot of $100 gigs for singers,” Allen says.) Gradually he found work as a background singer, and he had BIG help….from Kenny Davidsen who was just starting his Bow Tie Cabarets at the Tuscany Suites & Casino. Davidsen wanted Allen as a singer and guest host, and he has been a guest host MANY nights, giving him exposure as a brash, funny, rhythmic (he dances, too) song stylist.
Then came a call from Michelle Johnson to join a choir she was forming for one night – one night appearing with Barbra Streisand at the MGM Garden Arena “a real thrill”. Through Lorena Peril, Allen also met Skye Dee Miles who heard Allen and said, “I have work for you.” Allen then regularly worked with Miles at the Tropicana Las Vegas.
Bit by bit, Allen established himself as a Las Vegas entertainer. He worked “with” many folks, but didn’t see a star vehicle that fit his talents. He, therefore, decided to write his own show, a tribute to Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. That show, held at Ron DeCar’s Event Center, was a sellout. “I finally had my name in lights on the Strip,” Allen recalled. “Well, it was down the Strip a ways, but it was there.”
Local producer Mistinguett, whom Allen had originally known in California, then approached Allen about doing shows at the Starbright and Freedom Halls theaters. Those shows, too, were successful. He returned again to Ron DeCar’s Event Center for “A Night of R&B (Rhythm and Broadway)”; he also was cast as The Counselor in a show at UNLV’s Judy Bailey Theater called, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling B.” The calendar was getting crowded.
And then…the ships came calling. An agency that books talent on cruise ships needed new blood. Local scout Peggy Blair recommended Jassen Allen. Some clips were sent to the agency – and a year ago, Allen made his debut as a ship headliner. He developed two 45 minute shows, plus arrangements, and thankfully, the word came back, “Jassen Allen is a hit.” Allen will be spending a good part of the upcoming summer working on cruise ships in and around Europe.
What is the secret to Allen’s success as a ship headliner? “I realized that people on ships don’t really know me, even though I’m billed as a Las Vegas entertainer. Therefore, in a show I call ‘That’s My Story’ I have a high-energy opening number, but I then tell the audience who I am through stories and music. I also try to give audiences something unexpected. In that show I even do a bit of opera with an Andre Bocelli song, ‘Because We Believe’.”
And back home? Oh yes, Allen had been asked to be a permanent back-up singer at “Monday’s Dark,” Mark Shunock’s unique fund-raising variety show now held twice a month at The Space. Allen accepted that role and later was asked to produce the show (book the talent, develop themes, etc.) and that has worked out as well. Even when he is out of town, Allen typically organizes the show; he works closely with the musical director, his friend Kenny Davidsen.
Is Allen happy now? That struggling first year as a Las Vegas singer is behind him. He says he loves having the built-in ship audiences, though he enjoys Las Vegas audiences and Las Vegas entertainers as well.
“Entertainers in Las Vegas are so generous,” he says. “If they know of a job you’d be good for, they recommend you. If they can boost your career, they will do it. Such camaraderie, believe me, does not exist in Los Angeles.”
Allen says further that Las Vegas is blessed with so much top flight talent that he regularly sees new things about performing simply by watching “people like Clint Holmes, Earl Turner, Lorena Peril, Skye Dee Miles, Michelle Johnson, Kenny Davidsen and others.
“I may have a baby face and be from the middle of the country,” says Allen, “but I’m smart enough to continue learning.”