Geri Allen: “Clear … With Compassion”

Renee Rosnes chats with a fellow keyboard great

Lizz Wright (left), and Dianne Reeves (right) join the Apollo Theater audience in applauding Geri Allen at her celebration of jazz's great female artists, May 2013
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ACS--Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington (from left)--perform at Wayne Shorter's 80th Birthday Celebration, Town Hall, NYC, June 2013
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[This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of JT.]

As our March issue cover story, we published a conversation between the acclaimed pianist Renee Rosnes and the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Rosnes, a veteran of Shorter’s band, brought the sort of experience-based insight that marks the best musician-to-musician interviews.

For this year’s Women in Jazz special issue, we asked Rosnes, 51, to reprise her role as journalist for a chat with fellow keyboardist Geri Allen, 56. In late June, at a coffeehouse near their homes in New Jersey, the two artists talked for over two hours, covering Allen’s recent and upcoming projects, her musical development in Detroit, the importance of Mary Lou Williams, what she learned from Ornette Coleman, and much more.

RR: I thought we’d begin with your latest recording, Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations (Motéma). Growing up in Detroit, I imagine you were inspired by a lot of great music in the area. How did this particular project come together?

GA: Well, this is the last of a trilogy of solo-piano-driven recordings. The first one was completely solo [2010’s Flying Toward the Sound]. The second was solo-focused but with keyboards like the celeste, farfisa, clavinet and some other ancient kinds of instruments, but mostly piano [2011’s A Child Is Born]. There were some voices on it too. The second one was a Christmas record. This one is more solo-piano focused, but I also have [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave joining me on three songs and [saxophonist] David McMurray. So out of 14 songs, 10 of them are solo piano.

This is something I had envisioned doing when I was conceptualizing the three projects. I’ve wanted to do it for many years, even before this.

RR: Can you talk a bit about the repertoire on the new album?

GA: The repertoire is Motown compositions: music by Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, songs by Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Supremes and some Marvin Gaye material too. I also did Gerald Wilson. Marcus Belgrave has a piece on it as well as Roy Brooks, the drummer, and one of my songs is there. It was important to have it mixed with the jazz greats from Detroit.

RR: There are no bass and drums.

GA: No bass and drums. That was [a] really scary [way] to approach those songs that are so dance oriented. It took me a long time to finish the record. I’ve been very intimidated about doing those songs. People love those songs and they don’t want people messing with them.

RR: But then your interpretations can open up a new world, and people will discover those songs in a new way.

GA: That’s what I’m hoping—that they’ll feel that way.

RR: I always love the experience of hearing a familiar melody and not being able to quite place it, and then realizing it’s a piece I know, but the context was so drastically different I didn’t recognize it at first. I can remember that happening with a certain Beatles song.

GA: Actually, I do a Beatles song on this record. It was Aretha [Franklin’s] version of “Let It Be.” I thought, “Why would you do a Beatles song? This is Motown music.” But in the same ways we look at the standard jazz repertoire, these artists took these songs and played them really differently than the way of the original composer’s versions. This is something that we’ve always done: take classic pieces of music and find our voice, and Aretha certainly did that with that piece. I don’t know that she did a lot of composing on her own, but the way that she would interpret these pieces—whether it’s Beatles repertoire or “Natural Woman” by Carole King—she would take these songs and make them her own.

“Let It Be” was a piece that I loved from early on, and was one of the first songs I learned to improvise on. I thought it was really important to do this piece, to represent her and the fact that she’s such an important artist, even though she wasn’t necessarily a part of Motown. The idea was to include these Detroit musicians who were so influential, and I couldn’t see leaving her out.

RR: I’m aware that Marcus Belgrave has been a very important mentor in your life, especially early on in your career. He was the first musician to take you on tour to Europe when you were still in high school. Tell me a bit about that experience.

GA: The tour was about a week long as I recall, and that was my first time traveling to Europe. We played at the original Bimhuis in Amsterdam. It was a small place in the basement. That was the main gig, and we also played a concert at Montreux. I think we spent most of our time in Amsterdam, but of course Montreux was the bigger venue. I remember that it was a very exciting time. He used to say, “Put your time into your craft and music will take you all over the world.” For us he opened up so many different kinds of doors.

RR: Before you went on that first tour, had you already decided that you would pursue jazz as a career?

GA: Oh yeah, I was already there. How old were you when you made that decision?

RR: It was probably during my first year at the University of Toronto. I was enrolled in the classical performance program, but found that I enjoyed the communication with other musicians that I felt when I played jazz. I came to realize that jazz music was really where my heart lay as a performer.

GA: I really made the decision my first year in high school. I came into Cass Tech and there was this really high level of talent. Very intimidating—kids my age, or just a little older, like Greg Phillinganes.

RR: Didn’t he work with Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson?

GA: Yes, he did a lot! He’s really kind of quietly doing all these top-tier things.

RR: At that time, were there any other women musicians there?

GA: Yes, my friend Elreta Dodds and I auditioned together for the jazz ensemble. Since then, she’s become a very prolific author, so she’s not pursuing jazz, but she’s a minister in a church and music for her is important. Besides her, I studied with Bess Bonnier, who is a very well known Detroit pianist. Marcus was the one who got me lessons with her.

RR: I’m not familiar with her.

GA: I studied with her and it was a great experience. She just passed away a couple of years ago. I also studied with a classical teacher, Patricia Wilhelm, for about 10 years. She was my teacher from when I was 7 years old through high school, until I went to college. I did get to hear Terry Pollard too. Did you hear her?

RR: No, I didn’t. I’ve only heard wonderful stories about her.

GA: Oh my gosh. Well, it was an incredible experience. I saw her at the Masonic Temple with [vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs. He had her in the band, and I understand he also had Alice Coltrane in his band at one point, so two Detroit women pianists. Terry Pollard was a revelation. She was so powerful, and commanded the stage and the instrument. Both instruments—she went from the piano to the vibes and back!

RR: How would you describe her style?

GA: I must have been about 15 or 16 when I heard her. She played in the style of Bud Powell is what I recall—very, very muscular and fleet. She was comfortable on both instruments, and I thought, “Look at this. The leader of the band is so confident, he doesn’t mind.” It was great. It was like he was giving her this platform, and all the band was so excited when she would play. I thought, “That’s interesting—maybe there’s a place for me here.” And then later I became friends with Johnny O’Neal, who was very close to her.

RR: Who were some other Detroit musicians who reached out to the younger generation when you were there?

GA: Donald Walden was another very important and generous spirit who took a lot of time with the young musicians. He passed about five years ago. He introduced me to the faculty at the University of Michigan. He was teaching there, when I came. As a young person, I just remember that he was one of those people with very high expectations. There was no nonsense. He gave you a feel for what it was like in the trenches. He came up under Barry Harris, so his peers would have been Joe Henderson and people of that generation.

RR: Did Donald influence the way you teach?

GA: I always think about him and use him as a barometer. Am I being straight enough with the students? For me, you have to find that balance of how far you want to push a person. There are different ways to do that. There was more of a natural edge to his personality than me, but I always think that the students appreciated his candor. I try to find that balance to give them a compassionate version of his candor.

RR: Of course—the idea is to inspire them, not to put them in tears.

GA: I’ve done it! He didn’t necessarily make me cry, but I’ve been in situations where I really did cry. I feel that if I’m going to communicate with people as a bandleader or as a teacher, I’ve got to find a way to do it that is maybe more of an empowering way.

RR: I suppose it’s a little bit like being a mother, finding that balance of discipline and love.

GA: Yes, it has to be clear, but with compassion.

RR: I saw a wonderful video about the piano salons you host for your students, two or three times a year at the University of Michigan. How are the salons run?

GA: Well, different salons function in different ways. The first of the year, generally they bring whatever they want to do.

RR: Repertoire-wise?

GA: Yes, if they’re not really composing yet they can just come with whatever they have. It gives people a chance to know each other. It’s like introducing yourself as a person, as a musician. It gives me a chance, too, to see how they are dealing with performing under fire, because it’s hard to play for your peers.

The idea of the salon really came out of Mary Lou Williams’ salons on Hamilton Terrace. There are photographs of Hank Jones there.

RR: And Monk was there.

GA: Yes, Bud Powell was there, and Art Tatum, he would stay all night. They were just so comfortable and they knew that they were welcome. She was the grande dame, and she was also kind of looking out for them.

RR: Do you think in some ways they felt nurtured by her?

GA: Yes, I think in some ways they did, and I think they were also there to learn from her, some of them. Dr. [Billy] Taylor talked about both Monk and Bud, how she would give them ideas about how to develop their sound and projection. It became evident on later records, how that had impacted them. She certainly was an elder who they all respected, and the fact that she embraced them, I think, was significant at a time when most of her peers weren’t. You know, there was a lot of resistance in the transition into the bebop era. She was one of the ones, I think Ben Webster too, who understood that these musicians were coming with something of value, and that they should believe in themselves. You know how it is when someone who you look up to and respect acknowledges your ability, somebody from a previous generation. It’s a validation, especially if you have others of note who aren’t doing that. So I think she became a source of confidence for them, and it was also just a great scene.

I studied with John Malachi when I was at Howard [University], and he’s the first one who told me about these salons, because he was there. He talked about how Charlie Parker would show up at her house at 3 in the morning and she would always let him in, no matter if she was in bed or not. It was an open kind of place.

RR: What about some of your experiences as a sideman?

GA: It’s an interesting experience to be a sideperson in this music, because you have to be flexible. You have some artists who have more introverted types of personalities and they have their ways of communicating, and then there are the more outgoing personalities. People learn this approach of how to make a band sound as good as it can, in the best way they know how. Sometimes I think about the leaders that motivated me the most. It’s really hard to pin it to one style or another.

RR: I’ve noticed that some bandleaders prefer a more nonverbal approach. They seem to have a belief in who you are and what you can bring to the table, and a trust that the music will blossom. How would you describe your experience under the leadership of Ornette Coleman?

GA: I think a lot came through the process of playing the music. It was a certain kind of expectation, with the band. When I came into the band, it was a well-developed trio without the piano. So it was more about me finding a space in something that was already complete. At least, it felt complete to me. So he would give me this music and I would hear how he would play. I would hear the velocity and the virtuosity in the approach and the fact that everyone was playing to their full capacity—going for it. So I learned from the combination of hearing him describe the kinds of things that he liked and the kinds of things that maybe were reducing a moment. It was an interesting combination of him articulating the things that were working or not working for him.

RR: Could you give an example of what you’re referring to?

GA: Well, the piano as an instrument has all of these notes, in the sense that we don’t have to breathe air. If you can think of it from the perspective of what it’s like to breathe into an instrument, it changes the way you think about having to play everything that’s there. I think that was a big part of what I had to find in that context: to wait for the notes that were really going to enhance the moment. Instead of the way that we learn to play this or that, it really became about waiting and listening and hearing the melody in relation to these other four melodies.

RR: It’s like you’re painting together, so you have to pay attention to the gradients of light or when to add a bit more color or when to stop.

GA: Yes, very much like the experience of painting something together, where the melodies become the arcs and the shapes. I felt that way when listening to Ornette, the kinds of shapes the line would take or moments of density … with Denardo [Coleman] and Charnett [Moffett] and the way that they would deal with the density of sound, and Ornette’s sound would always shoot through it in a certain kind of way. It’s like if you look at the constellations when you see the stars. He would pick these spots, and everything becomes—somehow—a whole, complete idea.

RR: It’s interesting how visual the music can be. I remember hearing his band in San Francisco one night. To me, the image was a canvas filled with black lines moving quickly and chaotically. When Ornette played, I saw big circles of bright primary colors.

GA: Yes, and then the sound. To hear Ornette’s sound next to you—the impact of what that is, and the sound in and of itself—just the weight of that really made me want to figure out how you develop that when you play a note as a pianist. We have to find a way to do that. It doesn’t feel like a piano anymore, it doesn’t feel like a particular instrument, it’s something more. I think Ornette was looking for that from me: to find that place where it wasn’t really a piano, or it didn’t matter what the instrument was.

RR: You’ve been doing some exciting things with the ACS trio [Allen-Carrington-Spalding].

GA: Yes, [drummer] Terri Lyne [Carrington] is a really important force. She’s created a lot of bridges between artists who may not have ever had a connection. I’ve benefited greatly from working with her on the Mosaic Project, in terms of new relationships. One of them is playing with [bassist] Esperanza [Spalding] and Terri. The gigs we did at the Vanguard [in January 2012] were a great focal point in terms of the trio’s life so far, and we’ve done quite a few performances, but we have a real tour coming up which starts with Wayne Shorter’s birthday celebration at Town Hall.

RR: Nice. Will you be doing some Shorter repertoire?

GA: Yes, we’ll be doing some of Wayne’s music. We’re working on that now. Then we go to Montreal, and we have some other performances coming up in the fall, which I’m very excited about.

RR: You once said, “When audiences are really a part of what’s being played and they experience the motion and flow of the moment, the spirit of the music crystallizes in a deep and meaningful way. This is key to the quality of the experience.” What do you think creates a willingness to listen beyond category?

GA: Well, I think about Betty Carter and the way that she was able to connect to her audience. Working with different, really great bandleaders, there’s a certain kind of vulnerability. You know, they put themselves out there in a way that makes people recognize those moments in their own lives. I can say, as an audience member myself, when you see a person really giving and willing to show that openness, it brings you in. Also, seeing them enjoy what their doing.

RR: It helps you connect.

GA: With Betty, I would see the audience at the beginning of the evening with a certain armor on, and by the end of the evening there would be smiles on all their faces, like we all succeeded together.

RR: In May you were the artistic director for a production of the 2013 Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival at the Apollo Theater. You created a program that celebrated the “Great Jazz Women of the Apollo.” There were so many amazing and creative people involved—an actress, a filmmaker, a historian, a choir, a tap-dancer and many more musicians. Can you tell me a little bit about the concept and how it all came together? 

GA: Ora Harris, my manager of many years, had been talking to Laura Greer [the Apollo’s vice president of programming]. [My Timeline band] had done the [Apollo’s] black box club last year, and we really wanted to play the historic theater. She talked it through with Laura, and they agreed that we would be able to do it this year. After seeing different productions on the stage of the Harlem Shrines, I thought I’d like to do something that would have the energy of a concert—so people were still getting what they expected to get—but something more.

I was very fortunate to be introduced to [actress/director] S. Epatha Merkerson by a dear friend, Dwight Andrews. [Merkerson staged the production.] He’s a great saxophonist, a Stravinsky scholar, and he wrote music for many of August Wilson’s plays on Broadway. He and Epatha are from Detroit, so that’s how I met her. I’ve seen her at different concerts, and she’s a huge fan of the music. Then we had Farah Jasmine Griffin, the historian and scholar on Billie Holiday, and she recently did a book on Miles Davis and Coltrane. So the three of us came together and created this idea of a musical theatrical work where this young woman finds herself at a sound check at the Apollo to hear Dianne Reeves, Lizz Wright, Terri Lyne Carrington and Tia Fuller.

This young woman, who is an up-and-coming singer, is invited to a sound check by Karen Malina White, who plays the stage manager. She says, “You really want to get into this music? You’ve got to do your homework.” You know how we hear the stories. “Go get these women whatever they ask for. You’re lucky to be here. Just keep your ears open.” So basically the women are mentoring her onstage and talking about their influences. It’s a combination of them doing themselves and then paying tribute to Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone. … It was so much fun because they’re influenced by all these great vocalists—Nancy Wilson, Betty, Dinah Washington and Bessie Smith were represented. They got to do the classic versions of their hits, but they also got to be themselves. I think it gave people a freedom. They had memorized lines that Farah had written, so it was a different experience for us.

RR: One last question: What do you like to do when you get home from off the road, or from a long day of teaching?

GA: I love to be home with my family. That’s what the summer is really going to be about. JT