Life at a fast tempo

Life at a fast tempo

We remember the Ferrari-racing jazz musician Allen Eager

Words: Matthew Barker

Allen Eager is one of those fascinating characters that seem to always be right there in the middle of important cultural and historical moments, yet somehow manage to slip off any contemporary radars.


A jazz saxophonist, he became a protégé of the great Ben Webster (a mainstay of the Duke Ellington Orchestra) and developed a light, melodic tone that provided a perfect counterbalance when he worked alongside such bebop nobility as Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Max Roach and Bud Powell.


Always a popular figure on the New York jazz scene, he provided the inspiration for the Roger Beloit character in Jack Kerouac’s classic beat generation novella The Subterraneans

Allen Eager was a popular figure in the 1950s New York jazz scene <em>Photo: Getty Images</em>
Allen Eager was a popular figure in the 1950s New York jazz scene Photo: Getty Images

However, shaken by Parker’s recent death and keen to shake off the influence of drugs (including early experiments using LSD with Timothy Leary), Eager decided to leave the music world behind and adopt a healthier lifestyle.


He had learnt to drive at age nine, furtively steering a dustcart around the grounds of his parents’ hotel in the Catskills, just north of New York. Rather than punish her errant son, Eager’s mother apparently decided to talk him through the rudiments of clutch control, despite his tender years. 


In 1960, he was introduced to the racing driver Denise McCluggage. The two bonded over a love of Ferrari and McCluggage suggested he join her the following year in a race at Sebring, co-driving a 250 GT SWB, which had been recently acquired from Luigi Chinetti.

Eager and<span style="font-family: Arial; ">McCluggage at Sebring in their 250 GT SWB (no 12)</span>
Eager andMcCluggage at Sebring in their 250 GT SWB (no 12)

McCluggage took him out for a few test drives on the track, and that was it. They were off. Competing against Phil Hill and Olivier Gendebien, the Rodríguez brothers and Stirling Moss and Dan Gurney was never going to be easy, but the unlikely pair made a good account of themselves, finishing a creditable 10th and first in their GT class. 


Sadly, Eager’s racing career never quite matched that promising start, crashing out at the Nürburgring in spectacular fashion, but he kept at it for the following season, this time at the wheel of an OSCA, before he and McCluggage went their separate ways (though their friendship endured).  

The restored 250 GT SWB today
The restored 250 GT SWB today

Happy to sit and watch races as a fan, Eager settled down to family life. He briefly resumed his sax-playing in the 1980s, enjoying particular acclaim for a series of concerts at Ronnie Scott’s in London, before returning to the US and retirement at his home in Daytona Beach, just down the road from the famous race-track. Allen Eager died in 2003, aged 76.