Jul 13, 2010
Wherever school is in session, you’ll find Geri Allen. Even during summer vacation.
The acclaimed jazz piano player not only writes, records and performers with her trio and as a solo act, but has firmly established herself as one of the foremost jazz educators of the day. Having earned a B.A. in Jazz Studies and Piano from Howard University, and an M.A. in Ethnomusicology) from the University of Pittsburgh, Ms. Allen has dedicated much of her time and energy to teaching. Her latest position is part of the very distinguished faculty at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance as an Associate Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation. She’s visiting the University of Massachusetts this week as part of the faculty of the 29th edition of the Jazz in July Summer Music Program.
She called this year’s program “bittersweet”, since it’s the first year without Dr. Billy Taylor. Dr. Taylor, who will celebrate his 89th birthday later this month, retired as Artistic Director of the program he founded with the legendary Max Roach and others last year. “Being around him (Dr. Taylor), his generosity and eloquence and what he has contributed as a player was crucial for any musician who wants to continue to grow. We’re all so grateful to have had access to that”, she said.
This is the fourth time Ms. Allen has joined the faculty at Jazz in July. She had been invited by Dr. Taylor, current Artistic Director and co-founder Dr. Fred Tillis, and Dr. Willie Harris and felt she could not turn down the opportunity. “What a great program and great staff we have”, she said. “As always, it’s very rigorous, but also so much fun. We have such a mix of students – some very professional, other just entering college and some even younger. What they have in common is the love of music and the desire for growth.”
Ms. Allen follows in the footsteps of jazz education pioneers like Dr. Taylor, Richard Davis and Nathan Davis, all of whom saw the importance of teaching jazz in an academic setting. A product of the noted Detroit jazz scene, she credits her tutelage at the famous Cass Technical High School and the Jazz Development Workshop for her early success. Her mentors were trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and the late saxophonist Donald Walden, both known for their generosity of spirit and civic pride. Besides Geri, current jazz musicians such as Kenny Garrett, Robert Hurst, James Carter and Regina Carter are products of the Motor City scene.
“Being a jazz musician, you need to learn from the musicians in the community as well as your teachers in the classroom,” she noted. “It’s that combination of mentorship, study and practice that gives you the right foundation.” She laments the current state of the Detroit schools, which face losing their art and music programs to lean budgets. Only 55 percent of Detroit’s public high schools have a music teacher today, and Ms. Allen is trying to mobilize support to save the arts in her former classrooms.
During her thirty year career as a leader and band member, she has performed and recorded with a veritable who’s who of modern jazz musicians including Charles Lloyd, Ornette Coleman, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette and three of the all-time great bassists - Ron Carter, Dave Holland and Charlie Haden. She has twice been cited by Downbeat magazine as the top Talent Deserving Wider Recognition, and was the first recipient of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year (Twenty-One).
Ms. Allen is riding a wave of critical acclaim for her two recent CD releases on Motema Music. The first features her trio Timeline (Kenny Davis on bass, Kassa Overall on drums, and Ms. Allen on piano) joined by tap dancer Maurice Chestnut for a live recording of a unique collaboration. Interestingly, this was not the first time she has treated tap shoes as a jazz instrument.
“In the mid-80’s I did a recording (Open On All Sides In The Middle) where Lloyd Storey tap danced.. Since then I’ve wanted to go deeper with the idea. How do I get across the idea of tap dancing as percussion, or more than percussion? Or as part of a musical heritage? A lot of people just didn’t get it. So whenI was in Europe with the band we decided to record it ourselves – like so many jazz musicians have to do today – and my label loved it and decided to put it out.” The result is Chestnut serving as a foil for the members of the band, dueling with drummer Overall on “Philly Joe”, or trading melodic verses with Ms. Allen on Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha”.
The second CD, Flying Toward the Sound, is as pensive and thoughtful as Geri Allen and Timeline Live is explosive. She wrote and recorded the CD after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. “What a great experience – to not have to worry about anything other than writing, reading, playing and thinking for a year!”
Subtited “A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, Mc Coy Tyner and Herbie Hancock”, the highlight is a sweeping eight part solo piano suite she terms a series of musical “refractions”. “I consider it a circular kind of idea – the events of my own life are refracted through of the work and great ideas I have internalized from my musical collaborators and influences”, she said, naming the three piano titans the focus for this particular musical inspiration.
Equally important to the recording were her thoughts on motherhood. “What also comes out in the work are refractions of things that have inspired me as a parent. I thought a lot about my own mother, plus the experience of being a mother in writing the music.” The final track on the CD, “Your Pure Self (Mother to Son)” is dedicated to her son Wallace.
Ms. Allen will perform excerpts from her solo piano suite, along with a selected program of other solo piano works on Tuesday July 13 at Bezanson Recital Hall on the UMass campus. She will also join her fellow teachers in two All-Star concerts on July 15 (at Buckley Hall, Amherst College) and July 22 (at the UMass Campus Center Auditorium). The first will feature master saxophonist Vincent Herring and the second is a round-robin style concert featuring collaborations between different musicians and band arrangements.
How will she spend the rest of her summer vacation? First comes a week’s run at New York City jazz club Birdland, playing the music of one of her heroes, Mary Lou Williams. For those performances, she’ll be backed by Trio 3, composed of Oliver Lake (reeds), Reggie Workman (bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums). “And then I’ll probably head to Michigan and go away with my family and my Dad and maybe sit by the beach until it’s time for classes again,” she said with a laugh.