AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 31 YEARS
Geri Allen, a widely influential jazz pianist, composer and educator who defied classification while steadfastly affirming her roots in the hard-bop tradition of her native Detroit, died on Tuesday in Philadelphia. She was 60, and lived for the last four years in Pittsburgh.
The cause was cancer, said Ora Harris, her manager of 30 years. The news shocked Allen’s devoted listeners as well as her peers, and the many pianists she directly influenced.
In addition to her varied and commanding work as a leader, Allen made her mark as a venturesome improviser on notable albums with the saxophonist-composers Ornette Coleman, Oliver Lake, Steve Coleman and Charles Lloyd; drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr.; bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian; and many others. Her recent collaborations with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, in separate trios featuring bassist Esperanza Spalding and tenor saxophonist David Murray, found her in a ceaselessly exploratory mode, probing new harmonic expanses and dynamic arcs.
Allen’s solo piano work, from Home Grown in 1985 to Flying Toward the Sound in 2010, reveals an uncommon technical prowess and kaleidoscopic tonal range. The subtitle of Flying Toward the Sound claims inspiration from Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock specifically, but on this and other recordings we hear Allen, unfailingly distinctive. From Home Grown, the track “Black Man,” with its looping, interlocking pulses and forward momentum, points clearly toward a rhythmic sensibility heard today from such celebrated pianists as Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer.
Geri Antoinette Allen was born on June 12, 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan, 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 seven 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 protégé 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.
Soon afterward, Allen made a series of statements with the vanguardist M-Base Collective, spearheaded by Steve Coleman. She appeared on his debut album, Motherland Pulse, in 1985, and on several subsequent releases by his flagship band, Five Elements. Her own album Open on All Sides in the Middle, from ’86, featured Coleman in a bustling electro-acoustic ensemble, alongside other players including Belgrave and trombonist Robin Eubanks.
Trio summits followed with Ron Carter, a fellow Cass Tech alum, and Tony Williams (Twenty One); with Haden and Motian (Etudes, Live at the Village Vanguard); and with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette (The Life of a Song). In each setting, Allen proved more than a virtuoso able to marshal the greatest rhythm sections; she was a musical partner with prodigious ears, motivated by the percussive energy of the avant-garde, the elusive unified spark of straight-ahead swing, and the expressive truth of piano balladry.
Allen’s 1996 encounter with Ornette Coleman, documented on the albums Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women, stands out in part for its historical significance: this was the first time since Walter Norris on Somethin’ Else!!!! in 1958 that an acoustic pianist had recorded with Coleman.
The piano had little use in his free-floating music because it tended to impose a conventional chordal fixity. Not with Allen on the bandstand. She played a multifaceted textural and contrapuntal role, her ocean-deep harmonic knowledge guiding but never limiting her, from gorgeous and evocative rubato episodes to urgent free blowing. Her melodic voice, too, sometimes moving in unison with Coleman, brought a clarion intensity that remains unique in his output.
Along with her rare qualities as a player, Allen had significant impact as an educator for 10 years at the University of Michigan. She began as director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh, her alma mater, in 2013, succeeding one of her mentors, Nathan Davis. Three years later she became artistic director of the Carr Center — characterized by Mark Stryker, author of the forthcoming book Made in Detroit: Jazz from the Motor City, as “a downtown Detroit arts organization that primarily champions African-American culture and has a strong arts education program.”
In both her institutional work and her musical projects, Allen engaged in a serious way with jazz as part of a larger African-American continuum in the arts. Her 2013 album Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations was a hometown homage but also a reflection on the porous boundaries of black music. Last year the artist Carrie Mae Weems welcomed Allen and her trio to the Guggenheim Museum for part of a performance series called “Past Tense/Future Perfect.”
In her own work, Allen often sought to broaden her reference points and sonic palette, featuring the Atlanta Jazz Chorus on Timeless Portraits and Dreams (2006); the electric and acoustic guitar of Living Colour’s Vernon Reid on The Gathering (1998); and tap dancers Lloyd Storey, on Open on All Sides in the Middle, and Maurice Chestnut, on Geri Allen & Time Line Live (2010). She shed light on the legacy of the still underappreciated pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams on Zodiac Suite: Revisited, credited to the Mary Lou Williams Collective, with bassist Buster Williams and drummers Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille.
Allen is survived by her father; her brother, Mount Allen III; and three children, Laila Deen, Wallace Vernell, and Barbara Ann. Her marriage to the trumpeter Wallace Roney ended in divorce.
Along with a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 2008, Allen received the African American Classical Music Award from Spellman College, and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard. In 1995 became the first recipient of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year, for Twenty-One. The following year she became the first woman to win the Jazzpar Prize, a highly prestigious Danish honor.
Over years of seeing Allen live, it’s striking to recall her at Caramoor in 1994, when she shared a solo piano bill with the great Kenny Barron. She parsed Monk and other material, including her own, and encored in a riotous two-piano showdown with Barron on “Tea for Two,” dealing impressively with a tune of older vintage. Years later, at the Village Vanguard, she led an engrossing quartet with Hart, bassist (and Cass Tech alum) Robert Hurst, and percussionist Mino Cinelu.
In terms of the unexpected, however, don’t for a moment discount Allen’s 2011 Christmas album, A Child Is Born. She plays not just piano but also Farfisa organ, celeste, clavinet and Fender Rhodes, taking “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” to harmonic places they’ve likely never been. Even at its most searching, complex and sonically novel, there’s a contemplative quality in the music that makes this a worthy listen as we mourn Allen’s untimely passing.
Geri's talents and compassion for "the people" touched Brooklynites also
Our deepest sympathies to her Pittsburgh Jazz family!
I had the great pleasure of hearing the beautiful sounds of Ms. Allen, live. May she rest in peace with all the many Jazz Greats who have passed before her.
Arrangements have been made for the funeral of Geri Allen, director of Pitt’s
Jazz Studies program, who passed away June 27.
The viewing will take place on Friday, July 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Bethany Baptist Church,
275 W. Market St., Newark, New Jersey.
The funeral is scheduled for Saturday, July 8, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., also at Bethany
Afterwards, attendees are invited to a repast in the lobby of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center,
1 Center St., Newark.
Pittsburgh Jazz Network members,
Those in the New York City metropolitan are can honor the life of Geri Allen at:
Bethany Baptist church
275 West Market Street,
Newark New Jersey 07103
Saturday July 8th At 11:am- 12:30 pm
visitation July 7
Dear Dr. Harrison:
I hope this finds you well.
I am devastated by the passing of Geri Allen.
She was one of those most extraordinary people as a human being and in her legion of contributions to Jazz and music and in so many spheres.
I was able to see her near the end of her life and say goodbye.
I wanted to mention to you that in the things that I have seen from the Pittsburgh Jazz Network when you have talked about her, there is no mention of her
critical role in obtaining the Erroll Garner archive for Pittsburgh and what impact that has had in Pittsburgh. It was because of her being able to lead the process of the
university acquiring the archive that it was possible.
I just wanted to bring that to you attention.
My best to you,
Members of the Pitt community joined jazz fans the world over this week in mourning the death of acclaimed pianist and composer Geri Allen, the director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program. An influential jazz pianist who brought the same passion for playing to her role as educator, Allen succumbed to cancer the afternoon of June 27 at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia. She was 60.
Allen headed up the Pitt Jazz Studies Program for the past three years. She took the reins after long-running program founding director Nathan Davis retired. Allen revamped the program with additional faculty and outstanding staff and students, according to Deane Root, professor and department chair.
“Geri also quickly took a role across campus in many capacities, including diversity initiatives, the Year of the Humanities, outreach programs, the development of resources and archives, and collaboration with other institutions,” said Root.
He said when she took a leave from teaching and service at the University last fall to focus on her treatment she was worried she’d have to give up her creative activities.
“Throughout her illness, she continued to take an active role in mentoring her graduate students and worked valiantly to fulfill her contracted performances, which she said sustained her spirit and her reason for living,” he said.
Geri Antoinette Allen was born in 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan and raised in Detroit. The piano became her instrument at age 7 and by the time she graduated from Cass Technical High School, she was a protégé of the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, with whom she continued to collaborate over the years. She was one of the first students to complete a jazz studies degree at Howard University, and then, at the urging of Davis, earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Pitt in 1982.
Kenneth Powell, adjunct saxophone instructor at Pitt, was in the same program at the time and immediately hit it off with Allen.
“We performed together in a group called The Sounds of Togetherness,” he recalled. “Geri was a kind, passionate, and personable individual and those qualities were reflected in her music.”
Allen made a name for herself in New York City’s jazz clubs and in other venues across the country beginning in the 1980s. She performed and collaborated with Ornette Coleman, Ravi Coltrane, Betty Carter, Dr. Billy Taylor, fellow Cass Tech alum and bassist Ron Carter, and many others. More recently, she toured with bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington in the ACS Trio.
She has been described by more than one of her peers as “the female Herbie Hancock on the piano.”
In 1995, she was the first recipient of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year, Twenty-One. The following year she became the first woman and youngest person to win the Jazzpar Prize, a high Danish Honor. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008, the same year she won a Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard.
She was co-producer of the recently-released 3-CD set The Complete Concert By The Sea, an expanded version of the best-known album by Pittsburgh jazz great Erroll Garner. In 2016, it was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
Allen’s interest in Garner didn’t stop there. She was the guiding force in securing the donation of the Erroll Garner Archive for the University Library System.
“Her love and knowledge of Pittsburgh’s jazz legends and her international acclaim as a musician, along with her determination to enhance resources for Pitt students, led to a continuing relationship with the donor,” said Root.
“When you look back at women in jazz,” said former classmate Powell, “she’s going to be among the greatest ever. The synergy of her creativity and technical proficiency made her a powerful force that will be acknowledged for years to come.”
Allen is survived by her father, a brother, and three children. Plans are in the works for a memorial tribute to her on campus later this year.
And this fall, the 47th Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert will be dedicated to Geri Allen.
Thank you for sharing the news of the passing and arrangements for the incomparable Ms. Geri Allen. This is beyond sad and shocking and there are no words - especially for those of us who did not know that she was ill.
Her brilliant talent/clarity of vision and ability to communicate and execute her musical ideas were a rare combination. One cannot help but think that she had so much more to give and say in her oeuvre.
The wonderful Lucinda Harper - Dad’s Mother - used to say “God Works in Mysterious Ways”. Geri Allen in her short stay inspired a lot of musical minds and demonstrated that the far reaching vicissitudes of Jazz are everlasting. I think that Geri Allen planted the seeds for other musical talents and voices to follow in her footsteps in years to come. Like Miles, Prince, Erroll, Mary Lou Geri Allen was - to put it simply - way ahead of her time.
You’re right - she didn’t get the recognition that she deserved in her lifetime - but her voice was strong and her musical message will resonate - through her followers and like minded musicians for years to come.
She did a lot for the Pitt (Jazz department) and though not a native Pittsburgher - through her work she demonstrated that she had tremendous respect for the native Pittsburgh musical genius - Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhdorn et. al.
I hope Pitt does something monumental in her memory. Keep us all posted. Your’s is another voice that we’re all listening to!
My heart goes out to her family - especially to her children - two of whom are still on the young side. Losing one’s Mother at an early age is disconcerting and unsettling. I know personally all about this unnatural circumstance.
My sympathy to the Jazz Community, to Women in Music, to Humanity in general and most of all to her Family.