Geri Allen: The Nurturer

The brilliant pianist and composer Geri Allen approached her work in jazz education with the same level of enthusiasm, compassion and intelligence, as her many renowned students and colleagues attest

Geri Allen

On the day that I interviewed her for JazzTimes’ 2010-11 Jazz Education Guide, Geri Allen complained that she was “feeling sick to my stomach … in disbelief.” Earlier that morning, she’d received news that the Detroit Public Schools planned to fire a number of arts and music teachers in an ill-advised budget-cutting move, including the orchestra conductor and music teacher at Allen’s own alma mater, Cass Technical High School.

That visceral reaction should come as no surprise to anyone who knew Allen. In the wake of her passing on June 27, at age 60, she’s been rightly celebrated as a pioneering pianist, an artist whose work encompassed an unusually wide swath of jazz history and offered a model for the 21st-century jazz musician that deftly balanced tradition and innovation. But she was also possessed by an unmatched passion for education, an intense dedication to passing along a torch she felt she’d inherited from forebears like Mary Lou Williams and Dr. Billy Taylor.

Geri Allen at Vanguard Studios in New York in 1984, age 27
Geri Allen at Vanguard Studios in New York in 1984, age 27 (photo by Alan Nahigian)

That intensity was admirable but could also prove daunting. I felt the brunt of it in the wake of our conversation that July day at the Montclair Art Museum. A routine fact-check email turned into a somewhat contentious back-and-forth, as Allen attempted to rewrite many of her quotes, expanding some of them to three or four times their original length. It was an impossible request to honor, given ethical concerns and space constraints, and made for a few uneasy dialogues. But what was evident throughout was just how extensive and developed her thoughts on music education were, how strongly she felt about them and how powerfully she wanted them communicated.

At the time of her death, Allen was the director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to assuming that mantle in 2013, she’d served as a faculty member at Howard University, New England Conservatory, Montclair State University, the New School and the University of Michigan, where she taught for 10 years.

Allen grew up in a family of educators; her father spent more than three decades as a teacher and administrator in the Detroit Public Schools system, following in the footsteps of his mother, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Tennessee. She proudly pointed to the legacy of work with children that ran through generations of her extended family, and included teachers as well as doctors, ministers and social workers.

Determined to pursue a life in music, Allen initially rebelled against the educational path, but was inevitably drawn back in by the example established by her own mentors: her childhood piano teacher, Patricia Wilhelm, who guided her from the age of 7 all the way through high school; trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a Detroit legend who instilled valuable lessons at Cass High and on the bandstand; Billy Eckstine Orchestra pianist John Malachi, with whom she studied at Howard University; Nathan Davis, her predecessor at Pitt, who widened her perspective through ethnomusicology classes; and David Baker, whose instructional books led her to think more deeply about tracing knowledge to its source.

At the same time, she was learning the old-fashioned way, in the often-cutthroat environment found in Detroit clubs. In her gentle but stern way, Allen tried to integrate those two approaches, coupling the intellectual approach of classroom learning with the trial-by-fire tests of mettle offered by real-world experience. “I’m integrating both ideals,” Allen explained, pointing to the Mary Lou Williams-style piano salons she organized for her students. “It’s like a laboratory of scientists all working on this idea for a new breakthrough, all coming with their own ideas, all having something of great value to share with each other. It’s competitive but friendly at the same time. I think that peer relationship is very powerful.”

Geri Allen
Geri Allen performs at Ornette Coleman’s funeral at New York’s Riverside Church, June 2015 (photo by Alan Nahigian)

“[Her teaching method] was more like an apprenticeship approach,” said trumpeter Sean Jones, who crossed Allen’s path both on the bandstand and in the classroom at various points. “A lot of times in higher academia you get folks who teach from a textbook, and it’s really easy to plug and play when you do that. Geri was teaching from her life experience. The people who know what life is like on the road know what it is to play on a high level, know what it is to struggle to get to a certain level of success—those cats are the real examples. That’s what Geri was.”

“Geri was very conscious of passing on knowledge, and at the same time she was very conscious of making sure that younger musicians understood the legacy and hierarchy in jazz,” added drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, a longtime friend and collaborator who wasn’t yet a teenager when she first played with Allen.

A Ph.D. student in jazz studies at Pitt, Irene Monteverde served as one of Allen’s teaching assistants for the last two years. Watching Allen lecture to classes of more than 300 on the history of jazz, she observed that wide-ranging approach firsthand. “She always wanted to pay respect to her mentors,” Monteverde described. “But it was important to her not just to regurgitate the history of jazz but to make it [relevant to] everyday life. She wanted to connect with the students on a very real level about what’s happening now.”

That included not only music but technology. Allen was keenly interested in incorporating the latest classroom innovations, becoming an advocate for the real-time networking tech of Internet2, through which she played and taught with colleagues at other institutions, including Carrington and pianist Jason Moran. In that way she took advantage of opportunities offered by the same cultural upheavals she felt the need to fight against—specifically the new devices and technologies that seemed to be isolating people by absorbing them into narcissistic “social” networks. “The world has changed so much,” she told me. “We really don’t have to deal with each other so much anymore. We’re challenged with what the whole idea of human interaction means. And a big part of what this music is about is the reality of interacting with people.”

Christian Sands, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington in Geri Allen tribute
Christian Sands, Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington (from left) evoke Geri Allen’s spirit at the Newport Jazz Festival in August 2017 (photo by Ken Franckling)

Bassist Esperanza Spalding is usually hesitant about taking a “women-in-jazz” approach to discussing her place in the music, but she readily admits that Allen has been a powerful role model in that context. “I always think it’s not about being a woman,” Spalding said, “but then I realize that I was looking to Geri specifically for guidance because she is a woman. I don’t know why that’s true, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but honestly, knowing that she did it gives me confidence. I can’t go into the details of why because I don’t fully understand, but I do know that stepping out into the patriarchal world that we live in feels a little less scary having a reference like Geri.”

Allen took that role especially seriously, particularly in her capacity as the program director for the annual All-Female Jazz Residency of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). “A big part of how she wanted to make sure the future was educated [was seeing to it] that women had a sense of place and agency and power,” said Moran. “[One of the most important aspects of her legacy] is what she represents for the African-American woman in jazz. She made sure that stayed firmly in people’s eyes and that you had to be able to reckon with that history. She wanted to make sure that history was not going to be deleted or erased on her watch; she was going to put the work in to make sure that you would know Mary Lou Williams’ name.”

Moran recalled one of his earliest experiences with Allen’s music, when he brought a date to the Village Vanguard “as a test to see if she could handle Geri Allen.” (The verdict: “They couldn’t, so they weren’t the one for me.”) While that evening didn’t net Moran a soul mate, it did reinforce a feeling that he’d sensed about Allen’s distinctive approach, that she paved the way for a generation of pianists who wanted to incorporate the vast sweep of history into a single style. In that sense, she’s been a mentor for many of today’s most progressive musicians.

“Any student with half a brain would understand that she would dig into a bunch of different bags,” Moran said, “whether it was Mary Lou Williams or Cecil Taylor, playing with Betty Carter or playing with M-Base, writing her own music or being the only pianist Ornette Coleman would hire in later years. Any student who has future plans for a career, she marked it out for you: You should pay honor to the people around you and above you; you should share with the ones below you; you should treat your bandstand as one that is open; and you should play music that challenges. Now that she’s gone, I realize there was not another pianist in the history of the music like her.”

Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding (photo by Marek Lazarski)

Spalding, who worked alongside Allen and Carrington in recent years in the ACS trio, didn’t hesitate to call Allen a mentor, even as she meditated on what the term really means. “I felt very reverential towards Geri and would defer to her before my own call on any musical question,” she said. “But we were so busy making music together that I never even thought to assume a disciple mode. I don’t think I really took advantage of the potential for her to be an active mentor, but you don’t have to talk about something explicitly to be teaching about it. Her approach to people on and off the bandstand was a constant education. She encouraged me to do more than I thought I could do, just by celebrating what was happening and acknowledging it. She would comment on things I didn’t even know I was doing, and that encouraged me to seek further.”

One of Monteverde’s final opportunities to spend time with Allen came when the pianist asked her young TA, who’d formerly studied at Siena Jazz, to accompany her during a European tour with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava. It proved to be another instance of Allen’s subtle method of leading by example, showing her student how to maintain a down-to-earth demeanor in the face of the challenges that life on the road presents. “She was like a friend and a mom and a teacher,” Monteverde said. “She was always calm and soft-spoken, but you knew that she meant business.”

Spalding agreed that Allen’s demeanor could be as influential as her artistry: “She never got perturbed by people or by situations. She interfaced with everyone from a place of openness and humility. She would leave a lot of room for people to be themselves, and she didn’t judge them. It’s so encouraging to think that her students were getting a dose of all her musicianship and that model of humanity.”

Allen closed our conversation back in 2010 by musing on the point made by many veteran musicians, especially those deeply involved in education. She continued to consider herself a student, and in her case the cliché rang truer than with many of her peers. Unique among them, Allen seemed to continue to hear, absorb and learn from the discoveries made by successive generations of young innovators, not just the forebears she championed.

It’s been valuable to me, in the months since her passing, to reflect on the quote that ended that original story, words of wisdom that resonate all the more deeply now that she’s gone. “We have to be students of life and be very careful as we move through it,” she concluded. “There’s always some kind of unexpected moment that happens each and every day, and you have to adjust. Music is like that. You can’t ever take it for granted.”