Hours after the social media was abuzz on Tuesday, June 27, that Geri Allen was ailing, the gifted pianist, composer, and educator was dead. According to her brother, her publicist and her manager Ora Harris, Allen had been battling cancer, and many of her fans knew the end was near when it was reported that her vital organs no longer functioned. She expired in a Philadelphia hospital.
What did function right to her final notes was a boundless creativity, one that allowed her to explore in her 60 years a vast array of musical genres and concepts, none more essential than the bebop foundation forged in Detroit.
Already the flood of obituaries and remembrances are flowing, and rightfully so for a musician born in Pontiac on June 12, 1957, nurtured in the corridors of Cass Tech, and mentored by such formidable teachers as Harold McKinney, Kenn Cox, and the inimitable Marcus Belgrave.
I first met Geri when she began studying at the Jazz Development Workshop and the Detroit Metro Arts Complex, where Belgrave and McKinney burnished the fundamentals she had acquired at Cass Tech and later at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. At that time, still a teenager, she was quiet, introspective, preferring to let her prowess at the keyboard speak for her.
Allen said she first met Marcus through Marilyn Jones, “the wonderful choral director and flutist, who took it upon herself to establish a Jazz Ensemble at Cass Technical High School in the 70s.” Marcus, she told the Kresge Foundation, came the year after Donald Byrd as artist-in-residence, “and this is how the musical journey began.”
“Geri was my first protégé,” Marcus recalled. “Bess Bonnier, the pianist, introduced me to her….Bess was very impressed by Geri. She told me, ‘I think this little girl is going to be something.’”
That certain “something” is now being declared from a retinue of musicians and educators, all of them finding their own mode of expression to discuss the importance of Allen’s impact, her profound artistic sensibility and a peerless musicality that was comfortable in modes as disparate as Cecil Taylor, Steve Coleman, Thelonious Monk, or Vernon Reid.
In the coming days the experts of the music will blow their encomiums, summarizing Allen’s discography, her special insight and intuition that shaped the solos and empowered her compositions with intelligence and vigor.
Beyond her skills as a pianist, Allen was a thinking woman’s musician, and on several occasions I was privy to her wide-ranging knowledge and wisdom.
Last fall, after she performed in Harlem at Edgecombe Park, thanks to Karen Taylor and her organization, I wrote a review of it and in doing so recounted portions of Allen’s astonishing career, particularly her tenure with M-Base. First of all, she schooled me on the history of the group. “Warren Smith, the percussionist, who played with the first Tony Williams Lifetime, had a studio in Chelsea where all the young musicians would come.
We had no gigs but it was a palace to practice our craft.
“I met Steve [Coleman] there through another Chicago saxophonist, Dwayne Armstrong,” she continued, indicating the mutual sharing of tunes and sessions. “There was no M-Base yet, just a group of young hopeful musicians trying to survive and improve our craft. It was great. No leader. It was evolving into a co-op. Totally equitable at first.” She said that Steve did not invite her in. “I was already in, just as we all were. I left when things became less equitable. But in the beginning it was a great experience of musicians supporting each other’s growth.”
Allen grew exponentially, the numerous recordings, trios, ensembles, solo performances from one end of the globe to the other. I caught her in action in Detroit, New York, especially one memorable evening at the Kitano Hotel with her Motown natives, Bob Hurst on bass and drummer Karriem Riggins, and looked for her in Pittsburgh last year when I was invited to lecture on two films at the Ousmane Sembene Film Festival.
Shortly after she took over the Jazz Studies Program from her former teacher Nathan Davis, she had promised to bring me there to speak to her students. In the meantime, she had already appointed me to be part of her Hall of Fame Committee and I was pleased to be on her editorial board on the journal she planned to publish.
Anyway, she wasn’t in town when I arrived but I knew of the exhibit she had curated on Erroll Garner at the August Wilson Museum. In a video at the installation she provides snippets of her ethnomusicological background as she profiles Garner’s style and influence. And that ethnomusicological penchant, according to Eli Fountain, was given resonance from having to perform at various ethnic affairs where one’s ability to play Polish, Irish and Jewish music was required. Last year, she was one of the producers of a remastered recording of Garner’s classic “Concert by the Sea” album. What most impressed her was Garner’s unbridled exuberance, that “wonderful energy,” she said.
Allen’s energy, too, was of a phenomenal sort, and many of her colleagues voiced their concern about a possible over exertion. On her website elements of her expansive reach and versatility emerges with just a short list of collaborators–Ornette Coleman, Ravi Coltrane, George Shirley, Dewey Redman, Jimmy Cobb, Sandra Turner-Barnes, Charles Lloyd, Marcus Belgrave, Betty Carter, Jason Moran, Lizz Wright, Marian McPartland, Roy Brooks, Vijay Iyer, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, Laurie Anderson, Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding, Hal Wilner, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Dianne Reeves, Joe Lovano, Dr. Billy Taylor, Carrie Mae Weems, Angelique Kidjo, Mary Wilson and the Supremes, S. Epatha Merkerson, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Howard University’s Afro-Blue and many others.
Exemplary of this wide embrace was her engagement at the Harlem Stage three years ago in concert with vocalist Carmen Lundy, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer Kassa Overall in a script by Farah Jasmine Griffin and directed by actress S. Epatha Merkerson as they showcased the majesty of Mary Lou Williams, and Allen conveyed the emotional and expressive syncopation of Williams’ music, in touch with her spiritual and secular modes.
Her native Detroit musicians always appreciated being included in recordings and gigs, and that too is a list of amazing performers from Jaribu Shahid, David McMurray, Eli Fountain, Racy Biggs, Elreta Dodds, and Sadiq Bey. Her 1986 recording of “Open on All Sides in the Middle” with several of these Detroiters in tow, including Shahita Nurallah and Lloyd Storey personifies her sense of community and reaching back to help others.
Listening to her and Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding on “Unconditional Love” is to experience Allen at her interactive best, the clear tonality and the precise articulation of sound that enhances the voicings.
All of the plans we made about the coming fall in Pittsburgh, our renewed oneness will never be, but, thankfully, there’s her music, her recordings and videos that ensure her legacy and keeps us forever in touch with the special humanity she exuded from the keyboard and elsewhere. A relatively complete list of her recordings, recent concert dates, particularly with McCoy Tyner in Europe, and the countless awards and citations can be found on her website at