Geri Antoinette Allen, June 12, 1957-June 27, 2017
Last summer the jazz world was shocked to learn of the death of renowned pianist, composer, and teacher Geri Allen at the age of 60. Allen was a beloved figure known for her versatility and creativity across every stylistic area of jazz, broadly conceived. The New York Times obituary noted that “Ms. Allen’s style—harmonically refracted and rhythmically complex, but also fluid—formed a bridge between jazz’s halcyon midcentury period and its diffuse present.” Known for her innovative pianism, solo and trio performances and recordings, original compositions, and keen imagination, Allen also collaborated with a who’s who of musicians from a previous generation—Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and Betty Carter, to name only a few. Allen had an expansive aesthetic and believed in allowing the core jazz tradition to interact freely across the full range of African American expressive forms, including Motown and spirituals, experimentalism, and tap dance.
The Detroit native was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008, an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in 2014, and a Jazz Legacy Award from the Congressional Black Caucus. Over the course of her thirty-five year performing career Allen taught at many institutions of higher learning including Howard University, University of Michigan, New England Conservatory of Music, and the University of Pittsburgh. She earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982, where she wrote a thesis about alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy under the supervision of her mentor Nathan Davis. After Professor Davis retired, Allen succeeded him at the University of Pittsburgh, where she was appointed in 2014 as an associate professor and Director of Jazz Studies and the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert. She was building an exciting new program for which she made several appointments, including Aaron Johnson, Michael Heller, and Yoko Suzuki. Allen was in the process of reviving the journal Jazz and Culture, under the editorship of Heller, and was steadfastly committed to bridging educational inequities through community outreach.
Allen was also devoted to the history of women in jazz. She conducted original historical research on Mary Lou Williams and Lovie Austin and championed their music. In 1996 Allen played Mary Lou Williams in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City. Allen was also the musical director for the Mary Lou Williams Collective, which performed and recorded Williams's music including the Mass for Peace and the Zodiac Suite.
More recently Geri Allen had been performing regularly with McCoy Tyner and participated in two innovative trios--the ACS trio with Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding, and the MAC trio with David Murray and Terri Lyne Carrington. The MAC trio released a critically acclaimed album called Perfection in 2016.
Allen's vision extended to collaborations with the theatrical and visual arts. With S. Epatha Merkerson and Farah Jasmine Griffin she developed two musical theater projects--"Great Apollo Women," and "A Conversation with Mary Lou." Allen also collaborated with photographer, filmmaker, and visual artist Carrie Mae Weems, on the exhibit Slow Fade to Black, and the film Refractions: Flying Towards the Sound. Allen wrote the music during her Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008, and Weems's film accompanied Allen's concert performances of the work. As Terri Lyne Carrington has noted, Geri Allen was "a woman of few words, but significant action," possessing "sage-like quiet strength" and profound artistry. Timeless Portraits and Dreams: A Festival/Symposium in Honor of Geri Allen is dedicated to her legacy.