Revisiting his 1989 Wire interview with Geri Allen, Urpeth salutes the composer, jazz pianist and educator
Pianist, bandleader, composer and educator, Geri Allen, has died in Philadelphia from complications arising from cancer. She was 60. Across a career that spanned more than 35 years, Allen gained global recognition for her dynamic playing style and for her fearless sense of freedom as a solo and collective improvisor and composer.
Her work grew from her deep knowledge of the expanded traditions of African-American music, so rich and prevalent in the Detroit area in the era of her birth, and in which she was immersed from a young age. Born in Pontiac, Michigan, on 12 June 1957, Geri Allen was raised in a family in which the music of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, James Brown and Motown was ever present. Her father Mount V Allen Jr was a jazz pianist and local school teacher and, at seven years of age, Allen informed her father that she wanted to follow in his musical footsteps. In a 1989 interview in The Wire 67, Allen said that she felt that Detroit’s rich musical culture and heritage was “sociologically mine”. She would later state that almost every single important contact and connection she had in her musical career came from her Detroit upbringing.
Geri Allen was educated at the renowned Cass Technical High School in Detroit in its unique and productive music education programme, and she was mentored in the school’s jazz ensemble by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, with whom she would continue to record until 2012, three years before his passing. Allen remained deeply committed to resolving through her own work her sense of injustice that musicians such as Belgrave had not received the wider and sustained recognition that their work deserved.
She later came to the attention of trumpeter Donald Byrd, an alumni of Cass, when he returned to the school as a visiting musician. Byrd encouraged Allen to enrol at North Carolina Central University where he was then teaching. But, guided by her father to continue her education in a ‘black school’, Allen moved to Washington and entered Howard University to complete a degree in Jazz Studies under the guidance of pianist John Malachi.
After her graduation from Howard, a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts enabled Allen to continue her studies in New York with pianist Kenny Barron. While studying with Barron, her highly developed assessment of her self as a performer told her that she was not yet ready to make her way on the New York scene. Through Barron, Allen had met Dr Nathan Davis who was then developing the distinctive jazz programmes in the music department at the University of Pittsburgh. She went on to complete an MA in Ethnomusicology there in 1982, completing a thesis on the music of Eric Dolphy.
This thoughtfulness and meticulousness in her foundation as a performer ensured that at the age of 25, Allen did not so much emerge on the New York scene as explode on to it as a virtuoso pianist already possessed of a highly developed and instantly recognisable voice as an improvisor, composer and musical collaborator.
Connected by Dwight Andrews, a saxophonist and musical director she knew from her early days in Detroit, Allen was invited by Oliver Lake to join his band Jump Up. Lake gave Allen her earliest experiences of performance and recording sessions in New York. The connection could not have been more appropriate as a starting point, and a friendship and musical partnership would endure between the two across Allen’s life and career.
On hearing of Allen’s passing, Oliver Lake sent a message simply stating:
Geri Allen was a musician’s musician.
Geri was a creative genius.
Geri was beautiful.
Geri was lovely.
Geri was respectful.
Geri was strong.
Geri could play any style of music / she moved fluently through all genres.
I remember her coming to one of my recording dates with her little son, asleep in a baby pouch on her stomach. I said, Geri, what if he wakes up and spoils the recording? She replied: Oh he won’t, he’s accustomed to it… and believe me, she was right, not a sound.
Geri was a loving mother.
Geri and I made plenty of music together.
Geri was amazing.
Geri, my dear friend,
I love you.
Defined in the context of the African-American drum tradition, Allen’s musical ethos centred on her conception of the piano as a set of tuned drums. But it is also possible to take another quite different listening line through Allen’s extensive recording catalogue, and invert the equation she established for her own music. This line would place her profound and subtle ability to shape original melodics and harmony at the core of her achievements. Equally at home in the interpretation of jazz standards as in the percussive and sometimes labyrinthine flows of her own compositions, perhaps she will be remembered most for her ability to combine all of these elements in her attaining of a truly original voice in jazz.
Allan’s commitment to the central place of the language of the drum is of course there in her work as a bandleader as well as in her work at the piano. In two of her most engaging projects, separated by more than 15 years, she revived the deep historical parallels between tap dance and drumming and recruited leading tap dancers to be a central part of the rhythmic formation of her ensemble music.
As an educator, Geri Allen completed the circle of her own academic career by replacing Nathan Davis, then retiring, as Director of the Jazz Programme at the University of Pittsburgh, and she would earn a reputation as highly supportive and enabling mentor to students of all abilities.
In the later years of her career, Allen would define the space she wished to explore in her music through an intense focus on the legacy of three great pianists – Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner.
In her 1989 interview with The Wire, she commented, “…there was a strong sense of tradition in Detroit’s music, and I carried on that tradition in a traditional way, in the sense that you learn from your elders.”
Her legacy will be one of joy in the outstanding body of work she has left behind, and perhaps in the answers she found and recorded in her exploration of the music of the three piano masters. But her legacy will also be in her nurturing and inclusive generosity which has so influenced and enabled a new generation of performers to emerge in a tradition she had such a hand in advancing.