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Geri Allen: Journey to the Light

Greg Thomas By

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Geri Allen's playing and compositional efforts manifest a stylistic flexibility grounded in her absorption of the lessons of the masters of the jazz idiom, and her desire to innovate upon that legacy. As an apprentice during high school and college, and then as a journeywoman, Allen has kept company with musical legends.



She just returned from a very successful European tour with "Timeline," a jazz quartet which integrates tap dance into its core arrangements; Maurice Chestnut is the dancer. She recently led an All-Star group featuring Ravi Coltrane and Jeff "Tain" Watts at the Iridium in Manhattan. Allen has illuminated the band stands of Betty Carter, Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Lester Bowie, Charles Lloyd, Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette. At various points in her career, she has also worked with the men of the long-established Trio 3 ensemble: Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman. She considers the collaboration on the just-released Trio 3 recording At This Time one of the highlights of her journey.

Trio 3 was formed without a pianist so bassist Workman, drummer Cyrille, and alto saxophonist and flutist Oliver Lake could explore harmonic conceptions freely. Workman says Allen's "tasteful and intellectual approach" made her the most logical choice for a "musical conversation with a chordal instrumentalist who also has a unique approach to improvisation and composition.

"Being deeply rooted in a wide variety of music and styles gives her the necessary strength and conviction. One can readily notice her quick, tasteful spontaneity as she approaches each challenge put before her," Workman said. His band mate Cyrille, equally skilled in free and straight-ahead jazz, made note of the "soulfulness and beauty in her playing. She ranks at the top with those other pianists of her generation who have absorbed what has gone before in this music and continue to play and develop new music concepts that we can presently participate in and enjoy, while laying foundations for future generations of musicians as well."

Allen feels that melding her conception with the Trio 3 ensemble links her to the artistic heritage of each: "I feel very honored to be a part of that connection. There's a power, authenticity, and honesty in At This Time. A personal power and fearlessness comes through. I'm just excited, at this point of my musical journey, to have the opportunity to enjoy being creative with these three musicians again."

In 2008 Allen, an Associate Professor of Jazz And Contemporary Improvisation at the University Of Michigan (in Ann Arbor), was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, which she has used to compose a solo recording, Refractions: Flying Toward the Sound, soon to be released by Motema Music. Refractions, or the change in direction that occurs when a wave of energy such as light passes from one medium to another, signifies Allen's dance with Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, three of music's most important pianists, and three of her major influences.

The beautiful, soft-spoken Allen was born in Pontiac, Michigan and reared in Detroit. She attributes her love of jazz to her father: "I remember seeing his records and the beautiful art work on them, and how elegant, stylish and sophisticated the people were. People like Ellington, Charlie Parker, Sarah, Ella. He played the music all the time when my brother Mount and I were little.

"I remember my mother taking us to the Young People's concerts at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. We watched Leonard Bernstein's concerts on television as well, and I remember the piano really resonating with me." She began playing the piano at 7, and studied with Patricia Wilhelm from the beginning through high school. Wilhelm, a graduate of the University of Cincinnati Music School, introduced the young pianist to a solid method of practice. Allen studied much of the European piano repertoire, and her teacher also encouraged Allen's love for jazz. "That type of open-mindedness was unusual at the time, and although she had no real knowledge of jazz, she instinctively understood it took the same level discipline and study European classical did, and she respected that."

Her early experience in the Christian church was another source of musical grounding and spiritual awareness. "I went to church every Sunday growing up, and have memories of our pastor; he was brilliant. Music was a key part of the experience. I would sometimes play for the choir and even sang in the choir. That experience laid a foundation for my future interest in the sacred works of Mary Lou Williams."

Her grandfather, Mount Vernell Allen, was a Methodist minister, and Geri comes from a family of educators. "I understood that there was a fundamental connection in my family to spirituality. My mother is my role model still, and her kindness, gentle nature and firm self-awareness are still my goals today. My father was a Principal in the Detroit public schools for 35 years, and made a huge impact on many young people whom were fortunate to come under his guidance and wisdom. My family has always been very spiritually based, and focused on helping the community through education. Music was my way of expressing that same kind of desire to connect."

The Detroit public schools produced some of the most exceptional musical talent the world has known. Allen considers herself very fortunate for the education she received there. She began attending Cass Technical High School in 1972. The school is famous for graduates such as Donald Byrd, Ron Carter and Milt Jackson.



"The teachers had an expectation that was very high. It made us rise to that expectation. From the beginning, when I stepped in there, I knew it was no joke. I had one teacher there, Marilyn Jones, who ran the jazz ensemble. Her husband was a jazz musician. She put the whole Smithsonian Jazz Collection together as a source of study for us. I also sang in the school's Madrigals Choir, and iconic trumpeter Donald Byrd was so good as to allow us to perform his beautiful and challenging vocal work, A New Perspective."

Another trumpeter master, Marcus Belgrave, a bebopper who played at Motown and with Ray Charles, also did a residence at Cass High School. "He was really helpful in organizing Detroit's musicians. Marcus suggested that instead of having the young people pick up trash in the streets in the summer, that they form a big band, rehearse all day, and sit next to master musicians from the area such as Roy Brooks, the McKinney brothers, Lamont Hamilton, and Kenny Cox. That's brilliant. Kenny Garrett, Bob Hurst, Eli Fontaine and I would be paid to practice as teenagers.

"Marcus was my entree into clubs. After he completed his artist-in-residency at Cass, I brought him some of my early, fledgling compositions. They weren't very good, but to encourage me he booked studio time, and brought in some great musicians to play my songs. That validated me as a composer; that said to me, this is something you can pursue. Under Marcus, we had a very open environment. It was the same with drummer Roy Brooks. These generous master musicians were paving a way for our generation, as well as the next generation. Regina Carter and James Carter also benefited from this experience."

Howard University in Washington D.C. was the next stop on her musical excursion. "Washington was a very rich experience. I went to Howard pursuing Donald Byrd, but by the time I got there he had moved on, so I then had the good fortune to study with John Malachi, who was a member of the famous Billy Eckstine band. Sarah Vaughan was also in the band, and later John continued working with her as her pianist. John Malachi was a wonderful teacher; he showed me 'Ruby, My Dear' exactly the way Monk had showed him. He'd talk about Mary Lou Williams often, and how gracious she was, and how she would open up her home to all of the piano players, a piano salon experience. He talked about Art Tatum and how he'd play all night if you just gave him a beer. Monk would be there. Bud Powell would be there as would Dr. Billy Taylor, whom I am honored to say became my mentor, and continues to be a great inspiration for me."

Allen has had a great friendship over the years with Fr. Peter O'Brien, S.J., the Executive Director of The Mary Lou Williams Foundation. He has shared memories of Mary Lou Williams with Allen, and together they formed the Mary Lou Williams Collective for the performance of her extensive body of work. As Musical Director, Allen recorded Zodiac Suite: Revisited with Buster Williams, Billy Hart and Andrew Cyrille. She also played Mary Lou Williams in Robert Altman's 1997 feature film, Kansas City. Allen is also currently in discussion with film maker Carol Bash about composing the music for the upcoming documentary on Williams, The Lady Who Swings The Band.

"In 1982, I moved to Pittsburgh and was encouraged by Dr. Nathan Davis, who has a wonderful program at the University of Pittsburgh, to study ethnomusicology. I wasn't quite ready for New York, and did want to further my studies, and advance my playing. Dr. Davis offered me a teaching assistantship towards a Master's in Ethnomusicology. During that period, I spoke with musicians there who knew Mary Lou, and I actually lived for a while in East Liberty, where she grew up. Her iconic career was very illuminating. I was greatly moved by her work as a pianist, a composer, a conceptualist and as a free thinker. She knew who she was, she knew her worth, and she unapologetically pursued her artistry. I'm grateful to her for so many things."

Williams, who would have been 100 years old in 2010, inspired Allen's "For The Healing Of The Nations," a Sacred Jazz Suite in a choral setting written in tribute to the families, victims and survivors of the 9/11 tragedy. The title of the suite comes from the Bible and centers on various sacred texts. "God, the center, the core of our strength and the power of love and healing, is the only place I could look to, to find comfort when such things happen. The poet, and initiate of the project, Sandra Turner Barnes wrote much of the poetry other than the sacred texts."

Geri Allen cites coming from a strong spiritually-based family, participating in the Madrigals at Cass under Marilyn Jones, Mary Lou's Music For Peace, and her love for the voice as the main elements which helped to pave the way for her sacred jazz suite.

"Music can change the ethers; I know this as I listen to Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Whatever's going on, the music draws the Light. I think that's what this music has always really been about: people finding ways to express the Light even in the midst of darkness, finding a way to it through the power of the Spirit."

Recommended Listening:

Geri Allen, The Printmakers (Minor Music-Polygram, 1984)

Geri Allen, In The Year of the Dragon (with Charlie Haden & Paul Motian) (JMT-Winter & Winter, 1989)

Geri Allen, Eyes in the Back of Your Head (Blue Note, 1995)

Mary Lou Williams Collective, Zodiac Suite: Revisited (Mary, 2000-03)

Geri Allen, The Life of a Song (Telarc, 2004)

Trio 3 + Geri Allen, At This Time (Intakt, 2008)

Photo Credit

Richard Conde

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