You’ve reached a Premium article. To continue reading, please login or start a 3-MONTH TRIAL SUBSCRIPTION for just 99 cents/month. You’ll receive unlimited digital access plus a complimentary issue of our award-winning print magazine.
Join Our Newsletter
Join thousands of other jazz enthusiasts and get new music, artists, album, events and more delivered to your inbox.
By Larry Blumenfeld
Gone too soon, Geri Allen continues to reveal her genius.
Released in November, the duo recording from pianist Geri Allen and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, A Lovesome Thing (Motéma), was recorded at a Paris concert in 2012. It is, hopefully, not the last posthumous document we’ll receive of Allen’s music.
Allen and Rosenwinkel had played a week at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard. Having found quick communion, they arranged to play together again as soon as possible. In a liner note, Rosenwinkel writes of his interaction with Allen, which is notable for its “subtle planes,” “inner lives” and “contact with the universe.” He describes a sense of “something magical happening.”
Allen had that sort of effect on her musical partners. On the recording, after an extended version of “Embraceable You” — on which Allen plays both lush chords and the spidery yet graceful lines she was known for, subverting harmonies and rhythms without disturbing the music’s flow — she greets the audience. She explains that this interpretation of a George Gershwin standard was based on an arrangement by Herbie Hancock, who was among Allen’s personal lode stars. “I don’t know if you recognized the melody,” she says, chuckling, “but it was in there amidst all that beautiful, dense harmony.” That was Allen, wherever she went: disarming and unassuming while dropping history, acknowledging lineage as she created on the fly.
“In this music, there was before Geri Allen and after Geri Allen. She’s that important.” That declaration appeared on pianist Ethan Iverson’s Do the Math blog in 2017, to honor Allen’s 60th birthday. Fifteen days later, Allen was gone. Her death, from complications of cancer, cut short a career still in full bloom that had already left a monumental mark. The influence of Allen’s music and her scholarly work on the jazz scene — on our very idea of jazz — is hard to overstate and only beginning to be fully grasped.
When the full story of jazz since the 1980s is written, Allen will show up prominently in nearly every chapter. She contributed memorably to the catalogs of towering greats, including Ornette Coleman, who seldom worked with pianists after the 1950s, and Betty Carter, who turned Allen’s brilliant composition, “Feed the Fire,” into a signature piece. Allen worked on equal footing with nearly every standard-bearing bassist-drummer pair of her day; her 1994 album, Twenty One, is among the last sessions pairing drummer Tony Williams with bassist Ron Carter. Her music was at once classic and radical. Rather than adhere to any jazz convention or school, she absorbed them all, sounding complete.
After Allen arrived on New York’s jazz scene in the early 1980s, she landed in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood to find a resurgence of popular attention to jazz but also a Balkanized community. There was pressure to either conform to a neo-traditional idea of jazz or to reject traditionalism outright. Allen would have none of such false choices. She straddled divisions and defused seeming tensions with a galvanizing sense of purpose and the talent to back up her attitude.
“I’ve always walked in and out of a lot of different scenes,” Allen once told me over coffee at a SoHo café. “That’s something I’ve been proud of, that I intended to do.” She opened the door for other musicians to do the same. Drummer Andrew Cyrille, who played on The Printmakers, Allen’s 1984 debut as a leader, told me shortly after Allen’s death, “You could call Geri a thinker and a creator, and she is. But she’s also this powerhouse synthesizer of ideas. I feed off that. We all do.”
Geri Antoinette Allen was born on June 12, 1957, in Pontiac, Michigan, and raised in Detroit during a time of great musical ferment. She took up the piano at age 7. Her earliest jazz instruction came from trumpeter Marcus Belgrave at Cass Technical High School, a magnet school with a reputation for breeding accomplished players. “Geri was very timid,” Belgrave once recalled to me. “She and the only other girl in the class were being intimidated by some of the fellows in the class. But I knew her potential. So I told her to write something and bring it in. It was so interesting and so complicated that the boys couldn’t play it unless they worked really hard. That shut them up.”
In a 2020 issue of the journal Jazz and Culture devoted to Allen’s legacy, an essay by scholar Ellie M. Hisama explains how Allen consistently took on gender bias. “Deeply knowledgeable about a history in which women are not merely ornamental figures but are central forces in jazz theory and practice,” Hisama wrote, “she counters the narratives of male lineage that have dominated many scholarly and popular accounts of jazz.”
Long before Allen was cast as pianist Mary Lou Williams in Robert Altman’s 1996 film Kansas City, she had researched Williams’ legacy as a graduate student while living in the very Pittsburgh neighborhood Williams once called home. More convincing than Allen’s fictional film portrayal was her masterly performance, on a 2006 recording, of Williams’ Zodiac Suite. In 2014, Allen collaborated with scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, singer Carmen Lundy and director S. Epatha Merkerson on a theatrical production, A Conversation With Mary Lou, bringing alive how Williams’ Harlem home served as a salon for the likes of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. “Mary Lou championed Thelonious Monk at a time when her peers did not,” Allen told me. “Her creative vision was the logical bridge from the swing era into bebop. The things she played and said made a rich bed for that transition.”
In her day and her way, Allen did much the same thing. “Thirty years ago, her hands first showed up to my young ears as spiders scampering through multidimensional cracks in the rhythm,” pianist and Harvard professor Vijay Iyer wrote about first hearing Allen play. For Iyer, Allen revealed not just “perspicacious insight into whatever piece of music she was playing” but also “whatever that song wasn’t saying yet — and that was the exact space where she would begin her work, in the time-honored Black radical tradition of exceeding any and all frames.”
Near the end of her life, Allen formed a collective trio with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist-singer esperanza spalding. We can’t know what heights this group might have reached, but I do know that their approach to jazz was singularly elevated. The music was rooted in histories, including Allen’s own, yet also free to roam, released from expectations — the ones Allen had shaken off when she arrived in New York as well as still-lingering ones, including preconceptions about what the presence of three female players on a jazz-club stage might signify.
Carrington, who was among Allen’s collaborators in Brooklyn in the 1980s, said, “Geri made me dig deeper and take chances.” She called Allen “a low-key militant,” characterizing her “path of fearlessness as a form of resistance.” For spalding, “She embodied grace, and thoroughness, and a confidence that wasn’t born from being able to assert control over others. It was a confidence that was coming from somewhere else.”
Any chance to revisit Allen’s legacy, any new music from her archives, gives us one more glimpse of that place.
Featured photo by Renato Nunes.