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Remembering pianist and jazz composer extraordinaire Geri Allen for Jazz Appreciation Month

When Allen passed in 2017 at the age of 60, there were numerous detailed obituaries paying tribute to her career and influence, including one Anastasia Tsioulcas wrote for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Geri Antoinette Allen was born June 12, 1957 in Pontiac, Mich., and raised in Detroit. Her father, Mount V. Allen, Jr., was a principal in the Detroit public school system, and her mother, Barbara Jean, was a defense contract administrator for the U.S. government. Allen took up the piano at age 7 and went on to graduate from Cass Technical High School, the alma mater of jazz greats on the order of Paul Chambers, Wardell Gray, Gerald Wilson and Donald Byrd.

While in school, Allen became a protégée of the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who directed the Jazz Development Workshop and also mentored saxophonist Kenny Garrett and violinist Regina Carter, among many others. (Belgrave would go on to appear on Allen’s albums The Nurturer and Maroons in the early 1990s.) From another mentor, the late drummer Roy Brooks, Allen developed a deep love for Thelonious Monk, whose compositions she masterfully interpreted.

Allen graduated from Howard University in 1979, as one of the first students to complete a jazz studies degree there. She earned an M.A. in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982. For part of a year she sustained herself touring with former Supreme Mary Wilson. In 1984, she debuted with The Printmakers, a tight, imaginative trio session with bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Andrew Cyrille.

Downbeat’s Eugene Holley Jr. covered a tribute from her alma mater. He interviewed Fred Irby III, the founder of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble (HUJE), who met her on a visit to Detroit’s Cass Technical High School.

“She stood out from the other students,” Irby said. “She had a binder full of compositions, and she played a [few] of them for me. Several of her pieces had unusual compositional forms. … It was quite unusual for an 18-year-old to have those kinds of skills. I thought she heard music differently than anybody else, and I immediately offered her a scholarship.”

The predominantly black university’s jazz department, which was founded in 1968 by trumpeter Donald Byrd, was a warm, nurturing environment for Allen. “We embraced her from day one,” Irby continued. “Everybody treated her like family. She had a great mentor, [pianist, composer and onetime Billy Eckstine sideman] John Malachi, who embraced her right away.”

At the time that Allen was studying at Howard, the jazz program included several students who would go on to have notable careers as performers, including [trumpeter Wallace] Roney (who was married to Allen between 1995 and 2008); saxophonist Gary Thomas; pianist and piano manufacturer Warren Shadd; keyboardist Kevin Toney, of The Blackbyrds; and bassists Carroll Dashiell and Clarence Seay, the latter now a co-owner of B-Sharps Jazz Café in Tallahassee, Florida.

 “She always had a great imagination, chord voicings, timing,” Seay said. “She had a great left hand and she had a lot of freedom in her playing.”

In his obituary for Allen, The New York Times music critic Giovanni Russonello detailed the next steps in her journey.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Allen moved briefly to New York, then accepted an invitation to study at Pittsburgh, where she also worked under the saxophonist Nathan Davis and the Ghanaian musicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia. For her master’s dissertation she wrote a musical analysis of the iconoclastic saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flutist Eric Dolphy.

Ms. Allen graduated in 1982 and moved back to New York, where she joined up with the saxophonist Steve Coleman, a founder of the M-Base Collective. “She had a grasp of what came before, but she was trying to extend that in different ways,” Mr. Coleman said in an interview. “We talked about music from all over the planet, and we talked about music from all eras.”

He featured her on his debut album, “Motherland Pulse,” beginning a long association.

Her own debut, “The Printmakers,” a 1984 trio date with the drummer Andrew Cyrille and the bassist Anthony Cox, is a startling display of rhythmic and melodic mutability, as well as her inventiveness as a composer.

Here’s the not-quite-titular track from her debut album A Celebration of Life.

JazzTimes’ Michael J. West included the song in 2020’s “JazzTimes 10: Essential Geri Allen Recordings.”

On her debut, Allen doesn’t make a sound until nearly halfway through the six-minute opener. Yet as soon as she enters “A Celebration of All Life,” she’s as warm and welcoming as can be. It’s also a celebration of African rhythms, with Allen doubling Anthony Cox on the song’s intoxicating bass vamp. She does quite a bit of vamping on the right hand too, with variations (often incongruous ones) of the left hand’s rolling 4/4. It leans toward the avant-garde, but it’s profoundly West African in its essential character. Nevertheless, Allen puts the polyrhythms deep in the pocket and keeps the tempo strident and in motion; if the harmonies are steady and accessible, they also offer occasional hints of something more abstract.

Allen would go on to come under the mentorship of Betty Carter. Willard Jenkins, a jazz festival organizer and radio host, interviewed Allen in 1999 about how she first met Carter.

GA: I first met her at Howard University, around ’75-’76, and she had a great band with Kenny Washington, Curtis Lundy, and Khalid Moss.  It was really exciting to watch her perform, she inspired a lot of us.  We were all there, everybody came away with a real big excitement – she brought that.  I remember not really talking to her, but just the impact of that.  

Then I met her maybe three or four years later in Pittsburgh.  Nathan [Davis] had told her that I was a musician who admired her work.  She was sitting on a panel and I don’t think she knew me from Adam, but she invited me to join her on the panel, and I thought that was really generous since I didn’t really feel like she knew my work.  But I think she was trying to encourage me.  We had an opportunity to talk, we had lunch, and we started developing a rapport.  I remember her piano player was late for the sound check for the performance, so she invited me up to sit in, and that was the first time I played with her.

WJ: How did your relationship develop and evolve through the years?

GA: She was always really supportive and positive.  Once I got to New York it took me some time to get on my feet.  I started doing some things as a leader in ’82, which is when I got out of Pittsburgh; ’83-’84 I started being able to take my own trio out.  I would see her at different places and she was always real positive.  Her music was always a source of inspiration for me.  

It wasn’t until the late 80s that I actually hooked up with her; she managed me for three years under BetCar.  So Ora Harris and Betty took care of me and that was a major turning point in my career, in terms of legitimizing me.  I did lots of things with her: we did duos, lots of performances just us.  We performed in Europe.  We did a duo on ”Droppin’ Things” and people started calling she and I to do duo concerts and we did a number of things.  I think from that experience, when the idea came up to do the quartet with Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave [Holland] she put me in there.  That was a great opportunity for me to be out there with this strong situation, to be on the road with Betty.  We did all of the summer festivals [1994].

Here’s Allen performing her 1994 composition “Feed the Fire” with Betty Carter.

And here she is performing it live in 1997, at the Lugano, Switzerland Jazz Festival (Note: The video title states the wrong year).

Tributes to Allen have not come only from jazz critics and writers.

Carmen Lundy, jazz vocalist, composer, and arranger produced this film portrait of her friend.

One of the things that fascinates me about Allen’s body of work is that it is so diverse; she moved from bop to avant-garde to classic jazz with ease. Take for example, her album The Life of a Song, which John Fordham reviewed for The Guardian in 2004.

For this session, she has reassembled the trio she formed to back the vocals of the late Betty Carter in 1993, with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums – about as good as the contemporary jazz piano trio business gets.

The music consists of eight Allen originals, plus Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, Bud Powell’s Dance of the Infidels and Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes – the last including brass and reeds, with Allen’s early teacher, Marcus Belgrave, on flugelhorn. The power of the group is apparent from the opening bars. Allen’s opening LWB House – the Remix (it’s a reference to the ever-changing chemistry of her family) starts as a mid-tempo ostinato and develops with dissonant harmonies, mimicking the string sound of the African kora. The pianist’s eventful solos, Holland’s forward-leaning basslines and DeJohnette’s imperious drumming are into their strides at once, with the latter contrastingly reserved, gentle and cymbal-preoccupied on the following Mounts and Mountains, with its shifting four-note patterns over a bass pedal-tone.

Allen plays a lovely version of Lush Life in low, dark chords developing into pealing sounds (Bill Evans phrases occasionally flitting in) over an ebbing and flowing pulse, and her Herbie Hancock associations are exuberantly celebrated in the rolling gospel feel of Celebration Song and the impulsive momentum of Dance of the Infidels. All the playing is terrific, and Allen herself often breathtaking. The originals may grow on you, but it doesn’t matter if they don’t.

Enjoy Allen’s “lovely version” of “Lush Life.

Allen, always paying tribute to those who came before her, was the organizer of The Mary Lou Williams Collective, which John Kelman reviewed for All About Jazz in “The Mary Lou Williams Collective: Zodiac Suite: Revisited.”

In a time when “female jazz performer is no longer an oxymoron, it’s important to remember there was a time when jazz was essentially a men’s club. All the more remarkable, then, that pianist Mary Lou Williams was not just an accomplished artist—in a time where women jazzers were typically relegated to vocalist roles—but a forward-thinking one with one foot in stride and the other in a rapidly evolving musical landscape. While Zodiac Suite: Revisited is not the first tribute to Williams, it is the first to take a look at one of Williams’ most enduring pieces of music, treating it with both the respect and irreverence any serious jazz work deserves.

With a revolving-door group of players, pianist Geri Allen is the only constant in the Mary Lou Williams Collective. While the bulk of Zodiac Suite: Revisited, the first of a series of planned releases, features Allen with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, future records will use other musicians to suit each project’s specific demands.

Allen, a pianist with a firm understanding of the tradition but also a contemporary innovator, is the perfect choice to carry on Williams’ legacy. Recent work with Charles Lloyd and husband Wallace Roney has proven just how broad her reach is. She bears the stamp of Herbie Hancock’s sometimes dense abstraction, but she also understands the value of space, bringing a remarkable modernity to Williams’ adventurous suite.

Taking a point of personal privilege, I selected “Leo” to play here, since I was born on August 1.

In a completely different vein, in 2013, Allen released an album that was a tribute to her Motor City roots. Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations opened with a cover of Michael Jackson’s 1982 hit, “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.”

Allen maintained her ties to Howard University throughout her career. In April 2014, the Howard University a cappella group Afro Blue performed—with Allen at the piano—at the very first Howard University Alumni Jazz Concert.

Allen also applied her skills as an educator and ethnomusicologist (alongside her musicianship) via her Erroll Garner Project. She was also the director of jazz studies at her graduate alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh.

Allen’s devotion to her craft and its history are evident in this review of a boxed set, released by the Project.

Geri Allen is among the untold number of present-day jazz artists whose relationship with the album dates back to childhood. “Revisiting it now has been so empowering for me as a piano player,” she said recently between sets with her trio at the Village Vanguard. “Just hearing the way (Garner) expressed himself on the instrument — it was so fearless, and so free.”

“The Complete Concert by the Sea,” a new three-CD boxed set from Sony Legacy and Octave Music Publishing, greatly expands and improves on the original album. Produced by Ms. Allen and Steve Rosenthal, it includes 11 previously unissued tracks from the concert — doubling the amount of music — along with long introductions by the promoter, Jimmy Lyons, and that post game interview by Thornbury. A windfall and in some ways a revelation, the boxed set is just the first sign of a major archival effort around Garner that seems likely to raise his stature in the jazz pantheon, and to reaffirm his place in the lineage of jazz pianists.

In 2016, Allen would be nominated for a Best Historical Album Grammy Award for co-producing The Complete Concert by the Sea, as well as earning a nomination for Outstanding Jazz Album of the Year at the 47th NAACP Image Awards.

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For those of you interested in taking a deeper dive into all the aspects of Allen’s life and music, there are two symposia online.

First, there’s Feed the Fire: A Cyber Symposium in Honor of Geri Allen.

Feed the Fire: A Cyber Symposium in Honor of Geri Allen celebrates the work of the late pianist, composer, improvisor, and educator and serves as a launch for a special issue of the journal Jazz and Culture, “The Power of Geri Allen.” Feed the Fire focuses on Allen’s work in music as a performer, composer, teacher, activist, and mentor, and features a keynote event with Terri Lyne Carrington (Berklee College of Music), Angela Davis (University of California, Santa Cruz), Gina Dent (University of California, Santa Cruz), and Farah Jasmine Griffin (Columbia University).

Participants

Mount Allen III (SFJAZZ)
Dwight Andrews (Emory University)
Courtney Bryan (Tulane University)
Terri Lyne Carrington (Berklee College of Music)
Angela Davis (University of California at Santa Cruz)
Gina Dent (University of California at Santa Cruz)
Michael Dessen (University of California at Irvine)
Kevin Fellezs (Columbia University)
Farah Jasmine Griffin (Columbia University)
Michael Heller (University of Pittsburgh)
Ellie M. Hisama (Columbia University)
Vijay Iyer (Harvard University)
Aaron J. Johnson (University of Pittsburgh)
Veronica Johnson (Detroit Sound Conservancy)
George E. Lewis (Columbia University)
Nicole Mitchell Gantt (University of Pittsburgh)
Fred Moten (New York University / Tisch School of the Arts)
Robert O’Meally (Columbia University)
Yoko Suzuki (University of Pittsburgh)
Sherrie Tucker (University of Kansas)
Francis Wong (Asian Improv Arts)

(Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4) (Part 5)

Next, there’s Timeless Portraits and Dreams: A Festival/Symposium in Honor of Geri Allen

Geri Allen’s passing last June at age 60 shocked the jazz world. Allen, a beloved pianist, composer, and educator, was known for her versatility and creativity across every stylistic area of jazz, broadly conceived. The New York Times obituary noted that “Ms. Allen’s style— harmonically refracted and rhythmically complex, but also fluid—formed a bridge between jazz’s halcyon midcentury period and its diffuse present.” Known for her innovative pianism, solo and trio performances and recordings, original compositions, and keen imagination, Allen also collaborated with a who’s who of musicians from a previous generation. Allen had an expansive aesthetic and believed in allowing the core jazz tradition to interact freely across the full range of African American expressive forms, including Motown and spirituals, experimentalism, and tap dance.

Assembling to honor Allen at Harvard will be a towering line up of today’s musicians– Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Craig Taborn, Don Byron, Oliver Lake, Carmen Lundy, Kenny Davis, Tia Fuller, and Yosvany Terry–who will be featured in two evening concerts. Panel discussions and presentations will take place during the day on Friday and Saturday. Photographer Carrie Mae Weems and actor S. Epatha Merkerson will discuss their collaborations with Allen and colleagues from the Jazz Studies Program at University of Pittsburgh will address Allen’s educational vision. Musicians and scholars will share their experiences with Allen and provide a rich account of the history of Allen’s musical leadership.

There are six videos online of this symposium. This panel, with S. Epatha Merkerson, Carmen Lundy, Tia Fuller, and Ora Harris was delightful; filled with humor, history, and love.

The symposium at Harvard also included a tribute concert to Allen.

Looking outside the realm of jazz and shifting into today’s politics, I admit I was surprised to see this tweet.

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Ha!

Jazz Appreciation Month this year featured women in jazz, so let’s hear from ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Esperanza Spalding), at the 2013 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, in 2013.

I’ll be posting more to the comments—please join me.

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