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Geri Allen: A Life of Service

The pianist passes on to her students the lessons that were given to her

Geri Allen
Geri Allen with students

The recent documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows the comedy grand dame and plastic surgery poster-child for a year, during which she opens her autobiographical one-woman show triumphantly in Edinburgh and tragically in New York, wins Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice and becomes the grudging honoree/victim of Comedy Central’s annual celebrity roast. Through it all, the septuagenarian survivor reveals a brutal honesty about her own status as both show business icon and tabloid punchline and exhibits, above all, a ferocious determination to continue working at all costs.

“That’s a jazz life,” insists Geri Allen, raving about the film. “She’s saying, ‘I’m 75 years old, but they’re going to have to do a lot to jump over this hurdle I’ve created. I ain’t going nowhere.’ And I’m watching her and I’m thinking, ‘That’s the same language as a jazz musician.’ Understanding that there are hills and valleys, moments when you’re hot, 10-year lapses, why do you do this? Do you love it enough to weather the storms that come along? That woman is gonna make herself busy even if she has to work the chitlin’ circuit, because she has to-because she loves it. And that’s a jazz musician’s life. That’s what I try to instill in my guys and girls.”

The Rivers documentary will join Tap, the 1989 tap-dance movie starring Gregory Hines, Savion Glover and Sammy Davis Jr., on the short list of films that Allen recommends to her students at the University of Michigan, where she is associate professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation. The latter, she says, is a vivid depiction of the system of mentorship that nourishes art forms like dance and jazz from one generation to the next.

Both films thus teach the sorts of lessons that rarely appear, at least explicitly, on college curriculums; lessons that Allen learned the hard way as a young pianist on bandstands in her native Detroit. “I remember one time, on my first real professional gig, one of the great professional pianists in Detroit moved me right off the piano bench and said, ‘Come back when you learn the changes,'” she recalls, shaking her head at the memory. “This was in a club, with everybody there. I’m standing up next to him watching, and I’m humiliated to a degree, but at the same time he’s saying, ‘You didn’t do the work and you don’t deserve to be here,’ he’s also showing me the right way. It’s funny, because people talk about how rough [Detroit-raised singer] Betty Carter was, but she was just doing things the way that I’m sure she came up learning, because that’s how I came up learning.

“It was a tough-love approach and if you really wanted it, you dealt with it, and you became strong. You got a thicker skin and you acknowledged that they’re not doing this because they’re mean-this is serious. That’s the foundation for how I’ve learned to play, and it gave me the chutzpah to be in New York for the last 30 years.”

Though she credits those experiences with both teaching and toughening her, Allen, 53, tries to impart the same kinds of values with a softer touch. “My personality is not the kind of personality that does some of the things that were done to me,” she says. “That’s not who I am. My students don’t have the theater in the same way that we did with clubs that you’d go into and have somebody back at the bar screaming at you, ‘You’ve got to play louder! I can’t hear you!’ or, ‘Yeah! Go, such and such!’ I encourage my kids to try to seek out environments that are still vibrant in that way. There’s nothing else like it. The academy has its rigor in ways that upgrade a musician’s abilities all around, but they’re two very different environments. So I try to give them an experience of the academy of jazz from a mentorship point of view.”

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Allen would become an educator in one form or another. “For the most part, my family are all educators,” she says. “My dad had a 35-year career as a teacher and an administrator in the Detroit Public Schools. He also worked in Parks and Recreation, which was where kids go in the summer to continue their enrichment through the years. Kids come back to him who are now much older and tell him what a great impact he had on their lives. His mother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Tennessee. The other folk in my family have some kind of relationship with kids-doctors, social workers, ministers. So the way that they’ve always lived their lives has been around service, passing something on to the young people.”

As a child, Allen rebelled against following the path carved out by so many of her immediate influences, focusing instead on music, and not realizing at the time that her musical pursuits would eventually bring her into a life of service. She began studying the piano at 7 and continued with the same teacher, Patricia Wilhelm, all the way through high school. But it was her parents’ influence that instilled in her the dedication to her instrument that allowed her to withstand the harsh lessons of Detroit nightclubs. “I came up in a very disciplined environment,” she explains, “so practicing became a part of that ritual for me, like homework, something that I had to do every day before I could go outside to play with my friends and all that stuff. That had a lot to do with my understanding of what discipline was all about. Because I loved the piano, but in the beginning, anything is a little rough. It’s hard to feel good about it because you don’t sound good and you don’t see the turnaround happening as a kid.”

On the day we meet, at the Montclair Art Museum in her longtime home of Montclair, N.J., Allen describes herself as “feeling sick to my stomach all day in disbelief” over the news coming out of her native Detroit. She’d received discouraging information that morning about the Detroit Public Schools’ ongoing plan to cut the city budget by firing dozens of arts and music teachers, including the orchestra conductor and music teacher at Allen’s own alma mater, Cass Technical High School. (The school’s noted alumni also include Ron Carter, Donald Byrd, Regina Carter, Alice Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Gerald Wilson and Diana Ross.) “As human beings, how can we live in a world without music?” Allen asks. “How can that be something that is even a consideration? How in the world will we find the next really great musician if they don’t have the basic right to study music and art in a serious way? I can go through a whole list of first-chair musicians in the jazz scene out of Detroit who went to Cass, so this is a really great blow.”

At Cass, Allen studied with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who remembers her as “the most absorbent student that I encountered.” He was so impressed with Allen’s work, in fact, that he soon began employing her as his pianist. “I would take her on every kind of gig,” he recalls. “We played Italian weddings, Polish weddings, Jewish weddings, and anything that I would put in front of her, she could play. Except one time, she told me, ‘Mr. Belgrave, I can’t play the blues.’ I hit the ceiling. I said, ‘What you mean you can’t play the blues? You’re black, ain’t you? Call and talk to your grandmother and then come back and tell me you can’t play the blues.’ About two weeks later, I had a concert at the Detroit Institute of Art and I called this blues tune, nice simple tune, and that night what she played on it just amazed everybody. She got a standing ovation.”

Other mentors during that period included Gene Key, who went on to become Stevie Wonder’s music director, and saxophonist Donald Walden. “Everybody that was pivotal for me I met during my Detroit Public School years,” she says. “I was in the hands of people who made a decision not to be in New York but really knew what you had to do to be there, so I understood really clearly what I had to do to be a musician.”

From Cass, Allen moved to Washington, D.C., to study under John Malachi, former pianist for the legendary Billy Eckstine Orchestra, at Howard University. “Howard was an amazing educational experience for me culturally,” she says. “I learned a lot about how widespread the African-American experience was universally. Being from Detroit I didn’t really have the big worldview, and I met people from the Caribbean, from Africa, from all over the world. That was a very enriching experience for me.”

The impact of those eye-opening experiences led directly to her next move, when she decided to study ethnomusicology with saxophonist Nathan Davis at the University of Pittsburgh-a topic which again stirs her anger at the lack of respect for the arts represented by the Detroit teacher layoffs. “I studied musics from different cultures and how important a part of the fabric of how people breathe and think and live that music is,” Allen says. “If you look at the old world cultures, everybody makes music. Everybody sings and dances. … How do you expect to be complete as a human being without these opportunities for expression? It’s a crime. Research is available that very clearly states in terms of scientific language the difference between the brain when it has these opportunities to be enriched and a brain that doesn’t. So we have to keep fighting because our children will suffer directly, but so will the culture in the long run. We’ve never had a culture without arts. What’s that going to look like?”

Allen has done her part to instill those lessons in her own students. Before settling at the University of Michigan, she taught at the New England Conservatory of Music, the New School in New York and at Montclair State University. “I look at my students from a mentorship point of view, and there’s a trust in that that I take very seriously,” she says. “They each have different goals in life-some of them really want to get out there and be jazz musicians, some are more composer-oriented-but I want to give them the same depth in terms of how Marcus Belgrave spent time with me. Each student has a different set of needs that are specific to them, so even though they come prepared to a certain degree, the nuance is what we work with.”

Bassist Chris Wood, who went on to find fame as one third of Medeski, Martin & Wood, studied with Allen at NEC in the early ’90s. “Geri was very serious,” he recalls. “She had a deep reverence for jazz that was contagious. She was good at finding my weaknesses and worked with me to solidify my time, intonation and rhythm, but she also wanted me to find my own voice.

“Eventually I had to play an improvised bass solo for the entire [lesson]. I doubt I came up with anything very good, but when she said, ‘Time’s up,’ I felt like I had survived a rite of passage. No words were needed. There was nowhere to hide. Those were my first attempts at true improvisation, and just having her in the room set a tone that helped me find my path in the music.”

Allen’s own work often finds her looking both backwards and forwards. Her two most recent releases include a live album by her unusual quartet Timeline, which prominently features tap dancer Maurice Chestnut, and a solo album, Flying Toward the Sound (Motéma), which pays tribute to Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. She also insists that her students develop a similar sense of perspective. “They study these musicians-Mary Lou Williams, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Dr. Billy Taylor, Monk, Red Garland-in a microscopic way. But the point is, how do you take the voice of these brilliant artists and transform it into what eventually becomes your voice? That’s a process that takes a long time and a lot of hard work, and it takes a willingness to go the long distance. Some of them fall by the wayside, but the ones that stay in the game have, the way I see it, the same opportunities that I’ve had.”

Pianist Jordan Clawson, who graduated from the jazz studies program at the University of Michigan in 2006, recalls one distinct instance of Allen illustrating the work of one of those masters. The focus of the lesson was Red Garland’s comping on “If I Were a Bell,” from Miles Davis’ classic Prestige album Relaxin’. “To help me better understand Garland’s style,” says Clawson, “Professor Allen imitated a boxer while she sang the rhythms Garland played in the recording, emphasizing his comping’s movement, lightness and life. It was a very fun and helpful moment, adding a visualization to the sound I was learning to emulate.”

Trombonist Melissa Gardiner, who also studied with Allen at the University of Michigan, remembers the educator for her kindness, patience, open mind and respect for history. “She taught her students to respect the roots of the music and learn the tradition. She recommended that we check out gospel music in Detroit churches,” remembers Gardiner. “With all that in mind, the most important lesson she taught me was to find meaning in the music and be musical with everything that you play.”

As her own experiences have so directly impacted the way in which she teaches her students, Allen’s theory of education is decidedly experiential. She was introduced to David Baker’s instructional books on improvisation while at Cass, but immediately looked past their pages to the lessons hidden between the lines. “I learned a lot from those books,” says Allen, “but then I thought about David Baker and wondered, ‘How did he get that knowledge?’ I think the core of how a jazz musician has to learn is by earning the right to play this music, and to have to spend that kind of committed time, sweat and frustration-and excitement. If it’s laid out for you on paper, it’s a way of validating what you’ve gotten from doing the other work, but you have to have both.”

To that end, it’s not just the loss of opportunities both in nightclubs and in schools that distresses Allen, but the general trend of society itself. “The world has changed so much,” she says. “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.”

Allen, who fondly recalls her formative years alongside fellow musicians like Kenny Garrett and future Motown studio saxophonist Eli Fontaine, strongly encourages her students to help each other’s development. She has them play and converse together in a salon format, inspired by Mary Lou Williams’ gatherings, where Monk, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Hank Jones and other legends would gather. “The way I perceive it, they were there playing, showing each other their ideas, their tunes,” Allen says. “That’s the environment that I try to encourage with my piano players. It’s like a laboratory of scientists all working on this idea for a new breakthrough: They all come with their ideas and they all have something of great value to share with each other. And I would think it’s still competitive, although it was friendly at the same time. I like to use that as a metaphor so that my students can also push themselves to their fullest potential.”

That concept of a laboratory of peers also recalls another piece of Allen’s own development, the period in the mid-’80s when she moved to New York and became involved with intensely theoretical and activist music collectives like M-Base and the Black Rock Coalition. Her membership in these groups, she now says, made sense following the way she’d come to perceive music-making at Howard and Pittsburgh. “That was a really rich part of my experience,” she says. “We would have dancers and poets, visual artists, performance art, all of these different things happening along with the music. The idea of integrating all of these things is a very African kind of sensibility. There was an openness and people were encouraging of each other’s work, and a modern version of that is definitely what I want to encourage in my players. By supporting each other it gives more power to the whole.”

For as many students and fellow musicians as she’s inspired, Allen still considers herself a student, echoing a point made by so many greats before her. “It’s so unpredictable,” she explains. “It’s like life. We have to be students of life and be very careful as we move through it. 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.”

Originally Published