Some light went out of the jazz world on June 27 with the sad and stunning news that pianist and educator Geri Allen died at 60, from cancer. Seemingly she wanted to keep her illness quiet, making the loss all the more shocking to her many fans and musical colleagues. That she was so young makes her passing hard to believe, and even harder to accept. How in the world can such a vibrant jazz voice be suddenly and arbitrarily silenced, just……gone, in the blink of an eye?
Like a number of people I’ve talked to, I’m taking her death very hard, almost personally. This despite not knowing her or even having seen her perform in person. I suppose it’s partly that I love her playing so and that she was just slightly younger than me that make the loss so hard to take. But her untimely death also forces one to ask an uncomfortable question. Namely, if someone as strong and extravagantly gifted, as lovely and full of life as Geri Allen can go like this, then what’s to become of the rest of us? What, indeed?
(In the interests of grammatical correctness, I will try to write about Ms. Allen in the past tense, but I confess this seems unnatural and will be difficult.)
She was one of the most deeply satisfying pianists to emerge in jazz during the past 35 or 40 years and there was never any talk of her being a great “female” pianist; she was simply a great pianist, full stop. At the end of the day what I find so compelling about her playing was not only that it brimmed with core jazz values which I often find missing these days – deep swing, a wide-open blues sensibility, individuality of sound and feeling, a commitment to real improvising and a willingness to take risks, among other things – but also that I never had any doubt that she was telling the truth from the piano, as she saw it. Her playing was very graceful, expressive and purposeful; it was real for her each and every time, and she always made it real for the listener. She rose above the nuts and bolts of music; one never got the feeling she was going all whiz-bang or trying to split the atom to merely impress her audience, but rather trying to directly communicate with them, to send an invigorating and hopeful message. Not a superficially crowd-pleasing one, but a spiritually meaningful one. She could make you think just as she made you dance and that’s the idea of jazz in a nutshell – to move the body and feed the mind, to provide music that’s both enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Once one realized that Geri Allen was from Detroit, a lot about her piano playing began to add up. Detroit of course has a long and celebrated bebop piano lineage beginning with the “big three” of Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, but also including Roland Hanna, Hugh Lawson, Kirk Lightsey, and three women who were likely inspirational to Allen when she was coming up – Bess Bonnier, Terry Pollard, and Alice McLeod, who became Mrs. John Coltrane for a time. If it can be said there was a “Detroit school” of piano, it consisted of a linear style featuring the toughness and content of Bud Powell, wed to a more lyrical approach with a lack of clutter, a fluent technique and a crystalline clarity of sound. Above all, Detroit pianists were lucid and always told a story in their playing. Although she came along several generations after these pianists, and would often press against the boundaries of hard-bop they helped create, Geri Allen’s style shared their general characteristics, especially the story-telling aspect. Her improvising always had an organic and narrative quality, with one idea leading to another in a logical progression. Sometimes this was compositional or thematic in nature, other times more intuitive – she had a way of grasping the overall emotional tenor of a piece and using that as a template for improvisation.
Though coming long after the prime days of the “Detroit wave” in the mid-fifties, her immersion in the city’s jazz tradition is clear, beginning with the fact she graduated from fabled Cass Technical High, the same school that Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Flanagan, Paul Chambers and many other Detroit greats attended thirty years earlier. Two of her early mentors were Detroit veterans – trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who made sure she was well-grounded in jazz fundamentals – and drummer Roy Brooks, who awakened in her an interest in Thelonious Monk. Monk would loom large in her musical vision and she would become one of the best interpreters of his music on the scene. She also drew inspiration from the two most famous women of Detroit jazz, the ground-breaking singers Betty Carter and Sheila Jordan. Like both of them, she was steeped in the jazz tradition but had a strong desire to move forward, to experiment. In fact, I was told that it was Sheila Jordan, performing at the Jazz Bistro on June 27 as part of the Toronto jazz festival, who announced Ms. Allen’s death to the audience before her second set. The following night when playing the club with Guido Basso I bumped into trumpeter Brad Goode, who had played with Sheila the night Geri died, and he told me how hard the news was on her. She and Geri were close friends and mutual admirers, but being the trouper she is, Sheila somehow roused herself to perform at her usual high level.
With her grasp of jazz essentials and adventurous musical curiosity, Geri Allen’s playing had a wide range and balance. She was equally at home with the avant-garde or in the mainstream, and was equally expressive inside and outside of the song form. She could straddle seemingly paradoxical elements, sometimes in a single performance, or in varied settings with different musicians. Her playing was tough and powerful, but there was an elegance and sometimes even a vulnerability present which had nothing to do with her gender, but rather with her willingness to take risks. There was intelligence at work, yet her solos bristled and bubbled with energy; there was both intellect and emotion in play. She could make the piano sing, yet could also turn it into a drum, playing with fierce percussiveness. She was fearless, but her improvising always made sense and hung together melodically. It’s not that she tried to be all things to all people, but rather that she had a broad vision and a lot to say. And yet her playing never bored me, not once.
She was the first American pianist to record with Ornette Coleman since Walter Norris in 1958, and the only one to do so with musical success. To be fair to Norris, and also to Paul Bley, who performed live with Coleman around the same time, their collaborations came in the very early days of Ornette’s music before its implications and intricacies could be fully grasped. The challenge for a pianist playing with Coleman is that his music was primarily rhythmic and melodic; it didn’t have or need any chord changes, in fact they just got in the way. This was not a problem for someone with the ears and imagination of Geri Allen. She simply – or rather, not so simply – used the sonic, rhythmic and textural resources of the piano to weave melodies and sounds in and around Coleman. The two records they made together stand out as among the most distinctive of his later career.
Although she was a fine solo pianist and worked very effectively in larger groups such as those led by Steve Coleman, I always felt Allen was at her best in a trio, where she had some room to operate with a flow of rhythm around her provided by bassists and drummers who were on her level and on her wavelength. Such as Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille; Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette; Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, or her more recent trio-mates, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington.
And, if it can be said without offending anyone in these abysmal Trump-tweet times, she was one of the great beauties of jazz, with a marvelous sense of fashion, gorgeous skin and a radiantly warm smile. She was very photogenic and there are many striking pictures of her on album covers and elsewhere. Recently Mark Miller, almost as good a jazz photographer as he is is a jazz writer, posted on his Facebook page a remarkable black-and-white photo of Geri which he took at the Toronto festival in 1997. It shows Allen standing before a grand piano onstage in deep concentration at a sound check, with her young son Wallace Jr. – about three at the time – on her back in a child carrier. It’s an oddly intimate snapshot of a woman balancing the demands of being a jazz musician with those of being a mother. In a sense, it captures the essence of her: reaching for the stars, but with her feet firmly on the ground.
Earlier I commented that her death silenced a vital jazz voice, but that is only partly true because we can still listen to her. She made a lot of records – a lot of good records – and, as I’ve thought countless times, I don’t know where jazz would be without these magic disks that capture great performances and allow them to outlive their creators. Her far-too-early death hammers home a truth that becomes more apparent with each passing year: that in an art form as evanescent as jazz, it’s vitally important that musicians document their work as much as possible in order to leave something behind. Records, compositions, writings, teachings, these all form a musical legacy which can survive an end that can come much sooner than expected, as in this case. A sobering thought to be sure, but often it’s later than we think.
The only fitting way to mourn the loss of Geri Allen is to be grateful she was with us for even this long and to celebrate her by listening to her music and appreciating it anew, as I’m sure many have done over the last few days. I’d like to leave off with three tracks of Geri with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. The first comes from the 1989 record SEGMENTS and the other two from ETUDES, done in 1988. These are the records that first made me aware of her special talent. She made many good records before and after this, these just happen to be favourites, with each track capturing a specific facet of her artistry.
First, she’s at her most lyrical and melodic on this reading of Mickey Leonard’s lovely waltz, “I’m All Smiles”. Listen to how she makes the piano sing here, and how deftly she negotiates the harmonic maze that is this song:
As mentioned earlier, she could swing hard and play some deep, booting blues, as she does here while saying hello to Thelonious Monk and, at least to these ears, Phineas Newborn Jr. At times here, she bends both tonality and time without losing the groove:
And finally, her brilliant interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s classic “Lonely Woman”. She somehow gets the vocal qualities of a horn from the piano here, but without losing touch with its harmonic dimensions:
Geri Allen will be well remembered and greatly missed. All I can really say is thanks for all the wondrous music, Geri, and rest in peace.
© 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.