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Geri Allen: Journey to the Light

Greg Thomas By

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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.

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