Jun 29, 2017
The passing this week of pianist Geri Allen has taken the jazz world by surprise. Still at the top of her game as performer, composer and educator at the age of 60, it seemed that few knew of her illness, and even fewer of its severity. She will be sorely missed.
Her legacy is substantial – 19 albums as a leader; dozens more as sideperson for the likes of Paul Motian, Steve Coleman, Oliver Lake, and Ornette Coleman; a thriving jazz department at the University of Pittsburgh. Musically, her style grew and evolved over the years. A product of the Detroit school system, she integrated the classic Detroit jazz sound she learned from her mentor Marchs Belgrave with 80’s avant-garde and progressive sounds as a charter member of the influential M-Base Collective (Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman). Much of Charles Lloyd's comback can be traced to Geri's support. To me, she shone brightest in her trio recordings, bringing her into contact with Motian and Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland, and most recently, David Murray and Terri Lynne Carrington.
Even more importantly, Geri was that rare person who went out of her way to touch people, with both her music and with her words. She will be missed by her students, her fellow musicians, and all others who were lucky enough to have made her acquaintance, even for a moment.
Dr. Hankus Netsky, chair, Contemporary Improvisation and former chair of Jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory forwarded these words about her to me and other members of the jazz world:.
Like much of the musical world, New England Conservatory mourns the loss of pianist, scholar, and educator Geri Allen who taught at NEC in the early 1990s. A consummate musician in every respect, Geri was a gentle but demanding teacher who encouraged her students to broaden their listening, hone every aspect of their musical skills, and develop their classical technique. She brought a serious diligence to everything she engaged in and championed a truly global perspective on the African-American contribution to twentieth century music. Besides her immersion in the musical world of Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy, it seemed like her playing could go in virtually any direction, for example when she accompanied Betty Carter or recorded with Ornette Coleman. Her years at NEC were like a dream for me and her students (and I remember well when her daughter Laila was born in 1990 since I believe it was the same week as my first daughter, Leah!). One of my favorite moments from that time was her duo performance in Jordan Hall with bassist and cellist Dave Holland, who also served on our faculty in that era. We stayed in touch over the years and, most recently, I was glad to be able to connect her to author Mark Slobin, who has been working on a book about the connection between musicians who attended Detroit's public schools and the international music scene. Her memory will truly be a blessing for all of us who knew her.
Podcast 582 is my musical tribute to Ms. Allen, including selections from the many recordings she made as a leader and supporting others:
Geri Allen - "Feed the Fire" from Some Aspects of Water
Wallace Roney – “In Her Family” from Misterios
Geri Allen, Charlie Haden & Paul Motian - "First Song" from In The Year Of The Dragon
Geri Allen - "The Smart Set" (with Marcus Belgrave) from Grand River Crossings
Charles Lloyd - Title Track from Jumping the Creek
Geri Allen - "Black Bottom" from The Life of a Song
Paul Motian Trio – "Trinkle Tinkle“” from Monk in Motian
Geri Allen - "Silence and Song" from The Nurturer
Geri Allen - "The Eyes Have It" from Eyes... In The Back Of Your Head
Geri Allen - "Portraits and Dreams (reprise)" from Timeless- Portraits And Dreams