Geri Allen: MFM Salutes The Maestra’s Memory and Legacy

Text by Dawoud Kringle

Geri AllenOn Tuesday, June 27th, 2017, pianist, composer, and music educator Geri Allen died. The cause of death was reported to be cancer. She was 60 years old.

Her work has earned her a reputation as one of the world’s finest jazz pianists.

Geri Antoinette Allen was born on June 12, 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan, and raised in Detroit. She began studying the piano at age seven and went on to graduate from Cass Technical High School, (the alma mater of Paul Chambers, Wardell Gray, Gerald Wilson and Donald Byrd).

While in school Allen became a protégé of the late trumpeter and Jazz Development Workshop director Marcus Belgrave (who’d mentored mentored Kenny Garrett and Regina Carter, and later appeared on Allen’s albums The Nurturer and Maroons). Allen was also mentored by Roy Brooks. She graduated from Howard University in 1979, and later earned an M.A. in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982. She toured with former Supremes’ Mary Wilson. In 1984 debuted with The Printmakers, a trio session with bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Andrew Cyrille, worked with M-Base Collective and on Steve Coleman’s project Five Elements. After this, she appeared in trios with Ron Carter and Tony Williams, with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. In 1996 she worked with Ornette Coleman. This was the first time since Walter Norris on Somethin’ Else!!!! in 1958 that Coleman had recorded with an acoustic pianist. She later went on to work with Oliver Lake, Steve Coleman, Charles Lloyd, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding Mary Lou Williams, Vernon Reid, David Murray, and others.

The music world was not unappreciative of her work. In 1995 became the first recipient of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year, for Twenty-One. The following year she became the first woman to win the Jazzpar Prize, a highly prestigious Danish honor. In 2008, Allen received a Guggenheim Fellowship, She also received the African American Classical Music Award from Spellman College, and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard.

Allen’s piano work, in collaboration, or her extensive body of solo work, are the works of a master musician. As I write this, I’m listening to a live recording of her trio (with bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer Kassa Overall) at the Guggenheim in 2014. Her flawless technique was amazing on its own. But it’s her innate sense of musical artistry, her deft command of the subtlety of styles, and the poetic sublimity of her musical statements that shows the treasure she was, and the spirit she was tapped into. And her career was exemplary of professionalism and personal integrity.

All of us must take the journey Geri Allen took. There were many masters before us, and masters will come in the days ahead. However, it always saddens the musical community when we lose a master. MFM expresses our condolences to the surviving family and friends of Geri Allen, and salutes the maestra’s memory and legacy.