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Nicole Mitchell Remembers Geri Allen 

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

Geri Allen (photo by Rob Davidson)
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.

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