Nicole Mitchell Remembers Geri Allen 

Farewell tribute piece by flutist on the highly influential pianist and educator (6.12.57 – 6.27.17)

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Geri Allen (photo by Rob Davidson)

I can’t express enough what it meant in my early 20s to see Geri Allen, a woman instrumentalist, who looked like one of my aunties, standing elegantly fierce on what appeared to be the highest peak of respect in the jazz community. Pianist-composer Geri Allen was always steadily accomplishing incredible creativity with great integrity. Upon hearing her, one realized that her music carried the legacy of seemingly every piano technique known in traditional jazz, synthesized into a sound that was clearly innovative and identifiably her own. Geri could gesture single-line improvisations with the expertise of Wayne Shorter or Terence Blanchard, or she might choose to phrase uptempo in an Oscar Peterson double-octave winding-melodic fashion. She could jump Monkishly into jagged, spacious, minor-second-heavy blue originality, or do her own Geri micro-rhythmic thing. She could dance authentic harmony in one moment and stride James P. Johnson boogie-woogie into the next. Geri knew The Life of a Song, but on top of that, she knew how to stay Home Grown, always honoring her mentor Marcus Belgrave. She was a visionary Nurturer, a generously committed educator who paved the way for emerging artists as the director of jazz studies at Pitt, the founder of the All-Female Jazz Residency at NJPAC and a mentor to Esperanza Spalding and others.

Yet Geri knew how to remain Open on All Sides in the Middle, through her telematic adventures with AACM luminary George Lewis, and in her unlimited ability to Fly Toward the Sound. Didn’t everyone know that she had taken Mary Lou to the next level? Geri, who created exceptional music with Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Ingrid Jensen, David Murray, Dave Holland, Terri Lyne Carrington and many others, always maintained her honest and humble centeredness in full commitment to the music. Her presence was both equalizing and empowering. Her sparkling eyes said, “Yes, as a woman instrumentalist and composer, you can be true to yourself. You can create the music you dream of, and in spite of what you’ve been told about how treacherous this business is, you can connect with the good people out there and they will be the ones you find community with.” I believed I could pursue my place in jazz because I heard Geri Allen doing it. I felt solace in her sage-like smile, while she playfully knocked down other pianists with her cascading virtuosic touch and keyed our consciousness into her incredible sonic realms. Geri, a quiet voice that spoke with genius ideas, had powerful fingers that sang with fearless and calculated fire.

The album Twylight was my doorway into Geri’s sound world. She had built something solid and personal. Twylight glided magically, designed of a language code wrapped in more than M-Base, more than Detroit gospel and blues. Here Geri had manifested a style as unique as Monk or Cecil, by carefully cultivating the syllables of her own spirit to build with. As Twylight unwound, I was hypnotized by her rhythmic and harmonic originality, by the clarity of her vision and by her ability to tell a story with a seamless, subtle melding of synthesizers and piano that remains timeless. Her Twylight drops knowledge toward our self-actualization: “All that breathes with nature rejoices, moving out of a fog of elements, clarity standing before us.” In her titles I picked up clues. “A Place of Power,” “Stop the World” and “Dream Time” were concepts that emerged from the spiritual quest in Carlos Castaneda’s books that I had just discovered on my arrival to begin a new life in Chicago. Here was another Black woman musician who understood my searching for truth through sound. I would see her play live, but would I ever have the chance to meet her? I wanted to tell her, “You are my hero, for being courageous and having no limits in your journey toward mastery. Thank you for standing tall and for saying ‘no’ to anything even slightly compromising, and for showing me that there is a way to get to the top of the cliff I’m climbing.” I know Geri faced struggles, mostly in silence, just as those of us who love jazz, are Black and are women do. I’m moved by Geri’s graceful navigation through those challenges. I’m grateful that after many years of listening, Kunle Mwanga connected me with Geri, followed by a musical exploration in her sunroom, conversations about our teenage daughters, shopping in her neighborhood boutique, many phone talks and texts, a jazz think tank and a few cherished musical collaborations. Thank you, Geri, for leaving us the many albums and interviews that evidence your musical evolution, and for the memory of your gracious genius. Could we have Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran, Helen Sung, Aruán Ortiz or Craig Taborn without first having Allen? Could I be?

Dear jazz community: It’s easy to be mesmerized by Geri’s beauty and grace, but if we close our eyes and listen, we will recognize that Geri Allen wasn’t just great. She, like Monk and his mentor Mary Lou Williams, was a jazz master of incredible originality that contributed essentially to the history of this music. That’s who she is and will be, always.

Read Shaun Brady’s 2010 profile of Geri Allen for JazzTimes’ Jazz Education Guide.