Geri Allen, Detroit Nurtured Pianist, Composer, Educator, 1957-2017

Jun 28, 2017

Geri Allen died on Tuesday (June 27) at 60, only a day or two after word got out that she was in grave health. I didn't know Geri beyond a few brief off-stage greetings at the Knitting Factory, Newport, and Jazz in July at UMass, but over the past 30 years, I saw her brilliance displayed on bandstands with Charlie Haden & Paul Motian; Charles Lloyd; Wallace Roney; and the trio seen below with Spalding Esperanza and Terri Lyne Carrington. I always sensed a great feeling of love from her toward her collaborators and the music they created. Geri declared as much with the opening title on her 1984 debut album The Printmakers, "A Celebration of All Life." Among many distinguished compositions that followed was her 2006 orchestral and choral work, "A Healing for All Nations," which was commissioned by her alma mater Howard University in tribute to victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks.

Geri Allen was born in Detroit in 1957, was raised by parents who loved jazz, and was encouraged by the city's jazz community, including the faculty at the fabled Cass Tech High School, and her mentor #MarcusBelgrave. Geri went on to study with the legendary John Malachi at Howard and upon graduation won an NEA grant that enabled her to live in New York and study with #KennyBarron. She then went on to earn a Masters at the University of Pittsburgh, then made the New York scene in 1983, where she promptly recorded with #OliverLake on his Black Saint album, Expandable Language.

 

While struggling to establish more of her own identity on the New York scene, Geri worked with two renowned singers, the former Supreme Mary Wilson, and jazz great #BettyCarter. In various interviews that are posted on YouTube, she's credited Betty's "tenacity" as a powerful example of what it takes to forge ahead with a career whose ultimate marker of success she heard expressed by Art Blakey as "longevity." The pianist said that while she didn't go to Betty's level of owning her own record label (Bet-Car), she was able to carry through on her own recording projects with substantial independence. She also found in Carter an example of a woman who was at the ready for any situation, and a stickler for readiness on the bandstand. Through the years, Geri was managed by Ora Harris, whom she first met as Betty's manager.

Geri returned to Pitt in 2013, where she led the Jazz Studies program (one of the few in the nation that grants a Ph.D) and further consolidated the school's role as guardian of #MaryLouWilliams's legacy. She spoke with awe and said she was "absolutely optimistic" about the high standards of musicianship ("talent off the charts") that she witnessed in young players, and of what she sees as their commitment to the music's "continuity" with tradition. Alas, today there's a rupture in that continuity, as the music has lost a woman of graciousness, beauty, and quiet leadership. And the nation has lost an artist whose life played out in urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest, especially Detroit. The city was left for dead a generation ago, but it perseveres as a place that Rebecca Solnit, in her essay, "Detroit Arcadia," assesses as "a stronghold of possibility." Nurtured in the Motor City, Geri Allen readily acknowledged the roles that many teachers and musicians played in helping her pursue her own world of possibilities, and now leaves a legacy of inspiration and accomplishment for others to follow.