AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Growing up in Detroit, Geri Allen’s childhood soundtrack was her father’s collection of Charlie Parker records. It was as though her future as a jazz pianist and composer was preordained; and ever since, she has been arranging and re-arranging the notes to reflect the changing verses of her life’s path.
Among the first graduates of Howard University with a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies, Allen’s work has been influenced by ethnic music from many cultures. She was studying in New York City when the legendary Nathan Davis, founder of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program, recruited her to come to Pittsburgh, where she earned a master’s in ethnomusicology in 1982.
January 2014 represents a homecoming of sorts for Allen, when she returns to Pitt to assume the post that was long held by Davis, whom she considers a mentor. He retired in the summer of 2013.
“Pittsburgh has such a rich legacy,” says Allen, who arrives at Pitt from the University of Michigan, where she has taught since 2004. “The greatest names of our music came from Pittsburgh: Art Blakey really sanctioned the program when Nathan was just starting.”
She recalls how the Jazz Studies Program helped her, as a performer, also understand the rigors of scholarly research. In the years since, her list of accomplishments stretches wide: In addition to her own recordings, she has performed and collaborated with countless other artists, including her contribution of the song “Unconditional Love” to drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy Award-winning album The Mosaic Project. Her many honors include the Lady of Soul Award in Jazz and the Danish Jazzpar Prize.
“I think my education at Pitt was key to making those opportunities possible for me,” Allen says. “I have really been focusing on my performance career. I have been in the academy [teaching] performance-oriented courses. This is something that I’ve been doing for many years, and I’ve enjoyed it very much. I’ve seen many of my students come to fruition as performers in their own right, and of course that is very satisfying.”
Directing the Jazz Studies Program represents a new avenue in her career, one that excites and inspires her as she re-establishes herself in Pittsburgh and returns to her training in research.
“It’s definitely a new direction for me, but it was always something that I looked forward to doing toward the later part of my career,” she says.
Months before assuming her post in 2014, she began learning the many nuances of the program Davis nurtured for 44 years.
“It’s quite complex,” she says, citing the program’s state-of-the art William R. Robinson Recording Studio, which allows students to learn recording techniques and technology; the University of Pittsburgh-Sonny Rollins International Jazz Archives, which include the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame; and the International Jazz Archives Journal. “It has many different components to it.”
Among Allen’s early tasks was directing the 43rd annual University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar and Concert in November, a signature event founded by Davis showcasing the world’s foremost jazz performers with a week-long series of free educational seminars. The event culminates in a concert, where Allen performed along with Brinae Ali, tap percussionist; Marcus Belgrave, trumpet; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Vincent Chandler, trombone; Ravi Coltrane, saxophone; Kenny Davis, bass; Carmen Lundy, vocalist; Russell Malone, guitar; Kassa Overall, drums; Ernie Watts, saxophone; and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.
Complicating the task was the fact that Allen was still touring and performing away from Pittsburgh during the seminar’s planning stages. She credits the seminar’s committee and the support of her new colleagues on the faculty with helping to make the event possible.
As she steps into her new role, Allen hopes to maintain the core of what Davis instilled, moving into the unknown of the future with respect for its storied past. One such project is the potential for collaboration between the University and the Mary Lou Williams Collective, for which Allen has long served as musical director.
“I’m looking forward to really celebrating this legacy that Pittsburgh has contributed to the world,” she says.