12 June 1957
Pontiac, Oakland County, Michigan, United States
27 June 2017 (aged 60)
Geri Allen (Pontiac, Michigan, June 12, 1957 – June 27, 2017) was an American composer, educator, and jazz pianist.
Allen worked with many jazz musicians, including Ornette Coleman, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Charles Lloyd. She cited her primary influences to be her parents, Mount Vernell Allen Jr, and Barbara Jean Allen, and her primary musical influences to be mentors Marcus Belgrave, Donald Walden, and Betty Carter, as well as pianists Herbie Hancock, Mary Lou Williams, Hank Jones, Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell, and mentor Dr. Billy Taylor.
Allen was an Associate Professor of Music and the Director of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Allen was born in Pontiac, Michigan, raised in Detroit, Michigan, and educated in the Detroit Public Schools. She received her early music education at the Cass Technical High School in Detroit and the Jazz Development Workshop, where her mentor was the trumpeter/teacher Marcus Belgrave. In 1979, Allen earned her bachelor's degree in jazz studies from Howard University in Washington, D.C. She studied under composer Thomas Kerr, and pianists Raymond Jackson, John Malachi, Fred Irby, Arthur Dawkins, and Komla Amoaku. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she studied with the pianist Kenny Barron. From there, at the behest of the jazz educator Nathan Davis, Allen attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning a master's degree in ethnomusicology, returning to New York in 1982, and began touring with Mary Wilson and The Supremes.
In the mid-1980s, Allen became a charter member of both the Black Rock Coalition and the Brooklyn M-Base movement, a collective including saxophonists Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson among others. Allen played on several of Coleman's albums, including his first, 1985's Motherland Pulse, providing the composition "The Glide Was in the Ride", a track listed on the New Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. She also was the original keyboarder of the band initially most associated with M-Base: the funk-oriented Steve Coleman and Five Elements.
Allen's own 1984 debut album as a leader, The Printmakers, with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, was recorded in Germany and the first album to be released by the newly founded German label Minor Music. She performed with two members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) Joseph Jarman, Frank Lowe, then toured and recorded with altoist Oliver Lake. Her first solo piano album, Home Grown was released in 1985, followed by an album and a concert tour with the large ensemble project Open on All Sides in the Middle also featuring vocalist Shahita Nurallah and veteran tap dancer Lloyd Story alongside Steve Coleman, Robin Eubanks and percussionist Mino Cinelu. Bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal also joined Allen for her last recording for Minor Music, Twylight, released in 1989, again featuring vocals on two tracks, additional percussionists and herself also on synthesizer.
In 1988, came Etudes, a cooperative trio effort with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. Until 1990 several recordings of the trio followed, released on different labels. Allen also played on the drummer's 1989 Monk in Motian, and was part of Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra Montreal concert in 1989. In 1995, she was the first recipient of Soul Train's Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year for Twenty-One, featuring Tony Williams and Ron Carter, and the first woman, and youngest person to receive the Danish Jazzpar Prize. Allen continued to push the improvisational envelope with Sound Museum (1996), a recording made under the leadership of Ornette Coleman. The Gathering followed in 1998. The Life of a Song was recorded with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
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, Dwight Andrews, Mary Stallings, Carmen Lundy, Nnenna Freelon, Jay Hoggard, and other musicians also participated. The poetry was contributed by Sandra Turner-Barnes.
Allen took part in a documentary film titled Live Music, Community & Social Conscience (2007) while performing at the Frog Island Music Festival in Michigan. Allen contributed original music to the documentary film Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, directed by Lisa Gay Hamilton, which received a Peabody Award. Also, Allen contributed orchestrations to Andy Bey's "American Song" which was nominated for a Grammy Award. She was the recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship.
Her 2010 album Flying Toward the Sound was rated one of the Best Of 2010 on NPR, Down Beat magazine, the All About Jazz website, and the Village Voice's Jazz Critics' Poll that year. "Timeless Portraits and Dreams" featured NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter, as well as opera icon George Shirley singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing", saxophonist and mentor Donald Walden, vocalist Carmen Lundy, and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus under the direction of composer/multi-reedist Dwight Andrews. Allen's composition "Refractions" was released in response to her Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition, as "Flying Towards The Sound", along with three short art films by film maker/photographer, Carrie Mae Weems, for Motema Music in 2010. Geri Allen & Timeline Live, her second recording for Motema, featured bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Kassa Overall and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, and was released simultaneously with Flying Toward The Sound.
Allen received the "African-American Classical Music Award" from the Women of the New Jersey Chapter of Spelman College, and also received "A Salute to African-American Women: Phenomenal Woman" from the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Epsilon chapter at the University of Michigan, in 2008. Allen received a nomination in 2011 for the NAACP Image Award for Best Jazz Album, Geri Allen & Timeline Live. She was also nominated for both The 10th Annual Independent Music Awards in 2011 under the Live Performance Album category, and for "Best Jazz Pianist", by the Jazz Journalists Association.
Allen performed in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Unveiling Concert, A Theatrical & Musical Celebration Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., MLK: A Monumental Life, presented in Constitution Hall, by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. in 2011.
Allen previously served as an Associate Professor of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation at the School Of Music Theatre & Dance, at the University of Michigan, and, as of July 2012, was a curator in New York City at the STONE. In 2013, Allen returned to her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, as an Associate Professor of Music and to replace her retired former mentor, Nathan Davis, as the Director of the Jazz Studies Program at the university. In May 2014, Allen was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music. In spring 2017 she toured Europe as a guest artist with McCoy Tyner.
Allen died on June 27, 2017, at the age of 60, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania after suffering from cancer.
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