Politics Today

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

When Allen handed in 2017 on the age of 60, there have been quite a few detailed obituaries paying tribute to her profession and affect, together with 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 within the Detroit public college system, and her mom, Barbara Jean, was a protection contract administrator for the U.S. authorities. Allen took up the piano at age 7 and went on to graduate from Cass Technical Excessive Faculty, the alma mater of jazz greats on the order of Paul Chambers, Wardell Grey, Gerald Wilson and Donald Byrd.

Whereas in class, Allen grew to become a protégée of the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who directed the Jazz Improvement Workshop and in addition mentored saxophonist Kenny Garrett and violinist Regina Carter, amongst many others. (Belgrave would go on to seem on Allen’s albums The Nurturer and Maroons within the early Nineteen Nineties.) From one other mentor, the late drummer Roy Brooks, Allen developed a deep love for Thelonious Monk, whose compositions she masterfully interpreted.

Allen graduated from Howard College in 1979, as one of many first college students to finish a jazz research diploma there. She earned an M.A. in ethnomusicology from the College of Pittsburgh in 1982. For a part of a yr she sustained herself touring with former Supreme Mary Wilson. In 1984, she debuted with The Printmakers, a decent, 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 founding father of the Howard College Jazz Ensemble (HUJE), who met her on a go to to Detroit’s Cass Technical Excessive Faculty.

“She stood out from the opposite college students,” Irby stated. “She had a binder stuffed with compositions, and she or he performed a [few] of them for me. A number of of her items had uncommon compositional kinds. … It was fairly uncommon for an 18-year-old to have these sorts of expertise. I assumed she heard music in another way than anyone else, and I instantly provided her a scholarship.”

The predominantly black college’s jazz division, which was based in 1968 by trumpeter Donald Byrd, was a heat, nurturing setting for Allen. “We embraced her from day one,” Irby continued. “All people handled her like household. She had a fantastic mentor, [pianist, composer and onetime Billy Eckstine sideman] John Malachi, who embraced her immediately.”

On the time that Allen was learning at Howard, the jazz program included a number of college students who would go on to have notable careers as performers, together with [trumpeter Wallace] Roney (who was married to Allen between 1995 and 2008); saxophonist Gary Thomas; pianist and piano producer 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 all the time had a fantastic creativeness, chord voicings, timing,” Seay stated. “She had a fantastic left hand and she or he had loads of freedom in her taking part in.”

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

After receiving her bachelor’s diploma, Ms. Allen moved briefly to New York, then accepted an invite to check at Pittsburgh, the place she additionally labored below the saxophonist Nathan Davis and the Ghanaian musicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia. For her grasp’s dissertation she wrote a musical evaluation of the iconoclastic saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flutist Eric Dolphy.

Ms. Allen graduated in 1982 and moved again to New York, the place she joined up with the saxophonist Steve Coleman, a founding father of the M-Base Collective. “She had a grasp of what got here earlier than, however she was attempting to increase that in several methods,” Mr. Coleman stated in an interview. “We talked about music from everywhere in the planet, and we talked about music from all eras.”

He featured her on his debut album, “Motherland Pulse,” starting a protracted affiliation.

Her personal debut, “The Printmakers,” a 1984 trio date with the drummer Andrew Cyrille and the bassist Anthony Cox, is a startling show of rhythmic and melodic mutability, in addition to her inventiveness as a composer.

Right here’s the not-quite-titular observe from her debut album A Celebration of Life.

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

On her debut, Allen doesn’t make a sound till almost midway via the six-minute opener. But as quickly as she enters “A Celebration of All Life,” she’s as heat and welcoming as will be. It’s additionally a celebration of African rhythms, with Allen doubling Anthony Cox on the track’s intoxicating bass vamp. She does fairly a little bit of vamping on the precise hand too, with variations (typically incongruous ones) of the left hand’s rolling 4/4. It leans towards the avant-garde, however it’s profoundly West African in its important character. Nonetheless, Allen places the polyrhythms deep within the pocket and retains the tempo strident and in movement; if the harmonies are regular and accessible, additionally they supply occasional hints of one thing extra summary.

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

GA: I first met her at Howard College, round ’75-’76, and she or he had a fantastic band with Kenny Washington, Curtis Lundy, and Khalid Moss.  It was actually thrilling to look at her carry out, she impressed loads of us.  We had been all there, all people got here away with an actual large pleasure – she introduced that.  I keep in mind not likely speaking to her, however simply the impression of that.  

Then I met her possibly three or 4 years later in Pittsburgh.  Nathan [Davis] had advised her that I used to be a musician who admired her work.  She was sitting on a panel and I don’t assume she knew me from Adam, however she invited me to hitch her on the panel, and I assumed that was actually beneficiant since I didn’t actually really feel like she knew my work.  However I believe she was attempting to encourage me.  We had a possibility to speak, we had lunch, and we began growing a rapport.  I keep in mind her piano participant was late for the sound examine for the efficiency, so she invited me as much as sit in, and that was the primary time I performed along with her.

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

GA: She was all the time actually supportive and optimistic.  As soon as I obtained to New York it took me a while to get on my ft.  I began doing a little issues as a frontrunner in ’82, which is after I obtained out of Pittsburgh; ’83-’84 I began with the ability to take my very own trio out.  I might see her at completely different locations and she or he was all the time actual optimistic.  Her music was all the time a supply of inspiration for me.  

It wasn’t till the late 80s that I truly attached along with her; she managed me for 3 years below BetCar.  So Ora Harris and Betty took care of me and that was a significant turning level in my profession, when it comes to legitimizing me.  I did a lot of issues along with her: we did duos, a lot of performances simply us.  We carried out in Europe.  We did a duo on ”Droppin’ Issues” and other people began calling she and I to do duo concert events and we did quite a few issues.  I believe from that have, when the thought got here as much as do the quartet with Jack [DeJohnette] and Dave [Holland] she put me in there.  That was a fantastic alternative for me to be on the market with this sturdy state of affairs, to be on the highway with Betty.  We did all the summer time festivals [1994].

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

And right here she is performing it stay in 1997, at the Lugano, Switzerland Jazz Festival (Be aware: The video title states the flawed yr).

Tributes to Allen haven’t come solely from jazz critics and writers.

Carmen Lundy, jazz vocalist, composer, and arranger produced this movie portrait of her buddy.

One of many issues that fascinates me about Allen’s physique of labor is that it’s so various; she moved from bop to avant-garde to basic jazz with ease. Take for instance, her album The Lifetime of a Music, which John Fordham reviewed for The Guardian in 2004.

For this session, she has reassembled the trio she shaped to again the vocals of the late Betty Carter in 1993, with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums – about nearly as good because the up to date jazz piano trio enterprise will get.

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 final together with brass and reeds, with Allen’s early instructor, Marcus Belgrave, on flugelhorn. The ability of the group is obvious from the opening bars. Allen’s opening LWB Home – the Remix (it is a reference to the ever-changing chemistry of her household) begins 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 directly, with the latter contrastingly reserved, light and cymbal-preoccupied on the next Mounts and Mountains, with its shifting four-note patterns over a bass pedal-tone.

Allen performs a beautiful model of Lush Life in low, darkish chords growing into pealing sounds (Invoice Evans phrases often flitting in) over an ebbing and flowing pulse, and her Herbie Hancock associations are exuberantly celebrated within the rolling gospel really feel of Celebration Music and the impulsive momentum of Dance of the Infidels. All of the taking part in is terrific, and Allen herself typically breathtaking. The originals might develop on you, however it would not matter if they do not.

Take pleasure in Allen’s “beautiful model” of “Lush Life.

Allen, all the time paying tribute to those that got here earlier than 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 “feminine jazz performer is not an oxymoron, it is necessary to recollect there was a time when jazz was basically a males’s membership. All of the extra exceptional, then, that pianist Mary Lou Williams was not simply an achieved artist—in a time the place ladies jazzers had been usually relegated to vocalist roles—however a forward-thinking one with one foot in stride and the opposite in a quickly evolving musical panorama. Whereas Zodiac Suite: Revisited shouldn’t be the primary tribute to Williams, it’s the first to try one in every of Williams’ most enduring items of music, treating it with each the respect and irreverence any critical jazz work deserves.

With a revolving-door group of gamers, pianist Geri Allen is the one fixed within the Mary Lou Williams Collective. Whereas the majority of Zodiac Suite: Revisited, the primary of a collection of deliberate releases, options Allen with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, future information will use different musicians to swimsuit every venture’s particular calls for.

Allen, a pianist with a agency understanding of the custom but in addition a up to date innovator, is the proper alternative to hold on Williams’ legacy. Latest work with Charles Lloyd and husband Wallace Roney has confirmed simply how broad her attain is. She bears the stamp of Herbie Hancock’s generally dense abstraction, however she additionally understands the worth of area, bringing a exceptional modernity to Williams’ adventurous suite.

Taking a degree of private privilege, I chosen “Leo” to play right here, since I used to be born on August 1.

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

Allen maintained her ties to Howard College all through her profession. In April 2014, the Howard College a cappella group Afro Blue carried out—with Allen on the piano—on the very first Howard College Alumni Jazz Live performance.

Allen additionally utilized her expertise as an educator and ethnomusicologist (alongside her musicianship) through her Erroll Garner Challenge. She was additionally the director of jazz research at her graduate alma mater, the College of Pittsburgh.

Allen’s devotion to her craft and its historical past are evident in this review of a boxed set, launched by the Challenge.

Geri Allen is among the many untold variety of present-day jazz artists whose relationship with the album dates again to childhood. “Revisiting it now has been so empowering for me as a piano participant,” she stated lately between units along with her trio on the Village Vanguard. “Simply listening to the best way (Garner) expressed himself on the instrument — it was so fearless, and so free.”

“The Full Live performance by the Sea,” a brand new three-CD boxed set from Sony Legacy and Octave Music Publishing, tremendously expands and improves on the unique album. Produced by Ms. Allen and Steve Rosenthal, it consists of 11 beforehand unissued tracks from the live performance — doubling the quantity of music — together with lengthy introductions by the promoter, Jimmy Lyons, and that put up sport interview by Thornbury. A windfall and in some methods a revelation, the boxed set is simply the primary signal of a significant archival effort round Garner that appears prone to increase his stature within the jazz pantheon, and to reaffirm his place within the lineage of jazz pianists.

In 2016, Allen can be nominated for a Finest Historic Album Grammy Award for co-producing The Full Live performance by the Sea, in addition to incomes a nomination for Excellent Jazz Album of the 12 months on the forty seventh NAACP Picture Awards.


For these of you interested by taking a deeper dive into all of the features of Allen’s life and music, there are two symposia on-line.

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

Feed the Hearth: 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 particular difficulty of the journal Jazz and Tradition, “The Energy of Geri Allen.” Feed the Hearth focuses on Allen’s work in music as a performer, composer, instructor, activist, and mentor, and includes a keynote occasion with Terri Lyne Carrington (Berklee Faculty of Music), Angela Davis (College of California, Santa Cruz), Gina Dent (College of California, Santa Cruz), and Farah Jasmine Griffin (Columbia College).


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

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

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

Geri Allen’s passing final June at age 60 shocked the jazz world. Allen, a beloved pianist, composer, and educator, was identified for her versatility and creativity throughout each stylistic space of jazz, broadly conceived. The New York Occasions obituary famous that “Ms. Allen’s model— harmonically refracted and rhythmically complicated, but in addition fluid—shaped a bridge between jazz’s halcyon midcentury interval and its diffuse current.” Identified for her modern pianism, solo and trio performances and recordings, authentic compositions, and eager creativeness, Allen additionally collaborated with a who’s who of musicians from a earlier era. Allen had an expansive aesthetic and believed in permitting the core jazz custom to work together freely throughout the complete vary of African American expressive kinds, together with Motown and spirituals, experimentalism, and faucet dance.

Assembling to honor Allen at Harvard can be a towering line up of at the moment’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 can be featured in two night concert events. Panel discussions and displays will happen through the day on Friday and Saturday. Photographer Carrie Mae Weems and actor S. Epatha Merkerson will focus on their collaborations with Allen and colleagues from the Jazz Research Program at College of Pittsburgh will tackle Allen’s academic imaginative and prescient. Musicians and students will share their experiences with Allen and supply a wealthy account of the historical past of Allen’s musical management.

There are six videos online of this symposium. This panel, with S. Epatha Merkerson, Carmen Lundy, Tia Fuller, and Ora Harris was pleasant; full of humor, historical past, and love.

The symposium at Harvard additionally included a tribute live performance to Allen.

Trying outdoors the realm of jazz and shifting into at the moment’s politics, I admit I used to be stunned to see this tweet.



Jazz Appreciation Month this yr featured ladies in jazz, so let’s hear from ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Esperanza Spalding), on the 2013 Competition Worldwide de Jazz de Montréal, in 2013.

I’ll be posting extra to the feedback—please be a part of me.

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