Geri Allen, the pianist, composer and bandleader, whose music was too varied to be categorized, from straight-ahead to her engaging Motown interpretations to the brilliant colors of her avant-garde melodies, died June 27, in Philadelphia. She was 60.
The cause was cancer, said Ora Harris, her manager of 30 years.
Allen enjoyed a very successful 30-year performing career as a New York City jazz musician. Four years ago, she relocated and became director of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Before that position, she was a faculty member at Howard University, the New England Conservatory and the University of Michigan, where she taught for 10 years.
The Guggenheim Fellow was one of the producers of the expanded and re-mastered recording of Erroll Garner’s “The Complete Concert by the Sea,” which garnered her an Essence Image Award nomination as well as a Grammy Award nomination in 2016.
She felt strongly that students should have access to this material, and she went on to organize a 60th anniversary performance of the material at the 2015 Monterey Jazz Festival with the pianists Jason Moran and Christian Sands.
Her many awards include an honorary doctorate of music degree from Berklee College of Music in Boston (2014). Congressman John Conyers Jr. presented her with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Jazz Legacy Award in 2014. She was the first recipient of the Soul Train, Lady of Soul Award for Jazz. In 2011 Allen was nominated for an NAACP Award for her Timeline, Tap Quartet Project, and she was the first woman and youngest person to receive the Danish Jazz Par Prize.
“She was ubiquitous in terms of giving to the musicians and audiences,” said the drummer Andrew Cyrille. “She was absolutely dedicated to the music and was always continuing to grow.”
Geri Antoinette Allen was born on June 12, 1957, in Pontiac, Mich., and grew up in Detroit. Her mother, Barbara Jean Allen, was a defense-contract administrator for the United States government. Her father, Mount Allen Jr., was a principal in the Detroit public schools.
Allen received her early music education at Cass Technical High School in Detroit (the alma mater of Ron Carter, Regina Carter, Donald Byrd, Alice Coltrane and Paul Chambers) and the Jazz Development Workshop, where her mentor was the influential trumpeter and educator Marcus Belgrave.
“Geri called Marcus her musical father,” said the singer Joan Belgrave (Marcus’ widow). “I loved her as my sister. She was not only the pride of the Detroit jazz world, but was the most giving and loving person I have ever known. To be on the bandstand with her or watch her from the stage wings was always a spiritual encounter.”
Belgrave would go on to appear on Allen’s albums “The Nurturer” and “Maroons” in the early 1990s. From another mentor, the late drummer Roy Brooks, Allen developed a passion for Thelonious Monk, whose compositions
she often interpreted.
In 1979, she was one of the first students to graduate from the Howard University jazz studies program, under the direction of the trumpeter Donald Byrd.
After earning her master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982, she moved to New York, where she became involved with the M-Base Collective. The group played on the peripheral edge of jazz, with an eye on improvisation. She also traveled to Brooklyn on a regular basis to take lessons from the renowned pianist Kenny Barron.
In 1988, she became an integral part of Etudes, a cooperative trio with the bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian (both members of avant-garde). Allen also played on the drummer’s 1989 “Monk in Motian,” and was part of Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra Montreal concert in 1989.
Most recently, Allen was a part of two groundbreaking trios: ACS (Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding) and the MAC Power Trio with saxophonist David Murray and Carrington (Motéma Music 2016).
Allen’s feelings for the music were always straight from the heart, and her musicianship was effortless whether she was playing with the vocalist Betty Carter, Mary Wilson and the Supremes, the bassist Ron Carter or saxophonist Charles Lloyd.
“Her album, ‘Open On All Sides—In the Middle,’ describes her best,” said the trombonist and Craig S. Harris. “She was open to all types of music and was always willing to explore. She was about the music and helping people. She was a pleasure to work with and be with.”
Allen’s debut album “The Printmakers” (1984), with the bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Andrew Cyrille, gives notice that she is a music explorer and will be traveling the jazz universe and beyond. The CD “Grand River Crossings” (Motown and Motor City Inspirations) is Allen’s brilliant interpretation of the Motown songs and reflections of growing up in the hot music town of Detroit.
“Geri Allen managed to sustain a certain level of elegance, not arrogance, in her artistry,” stated the pianist James Hurt. “Long before the jazz industrial complex began to vamp marketing buzz words like ‘classically trained’ as bullish genre-superiority-complex jargon, Geri had already
Allen was the musical director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective, recording and performing the music of the great Mary Lou Williams, including her sacred work, “Mass for Peace.”
She collaborated with the actress S. Epatha Merkerson and Dr. Farah Jasmin Griffin (Columbia University) on two music theater projects, “Great Apollo Women,” which premiered at the legendary Apollo Theater, and “A Conversation with Mary Lou,” which premiered at the Harlem Stage, as an educational component for the Harlem Stage collaboration.
In 2006, Allen was commissioned to compose “For the Healing of the Nations, a Sacred Jazz Suite for Voices,” written in tribute to the victims, survivors and their families of the 9/11 attacks.
The suite was performed by Howard University’s Afro-Blue Jazz Choir, under the direction of Connaitre Miller. Oliver Lake, Craig Harris, Andy Bey, Carmen Lundy, Nnenna Freelon, Jay Hoggard and poet Sandra Turner-Barnes participated.
Over the past few years, Allen served as the program director of NJPAC’s All-Female Jazz Residency, which offered a weeklong opportunity for young women, ages 14 to 25, to study jazz.
In a career that spans more than 30 years, with an accumulation of 20 albums as a leader, Allen has left behind her pronounced interpretation of this music we call jazz. At any given moment we can visit her treasured albums and frolic through her soulful rose petals of life or zoom in on the notes of her inventiveness.
Allen is survived by her father Mount Allen Jr., brother Mount Allen III and three children: Laila, Wallace and Barbara. Funeral arrangements and a memorial service are pending.