Geri Allen, an intrepid pianist-composer and dedicated educator whose discography includes nearly 20 albums as a leader/soloist and a wide variety of collaborations, died June 27 in Philadelphia. The cause was cancer, according to various reports. Allen had turned 60 two weeks ago.
Allen was still active as a performer as recently as this spring, when she toured Europe with fellow pianist McCoy Tyner. Her most recent recording as a leader was 2013’s Grand River Crossings: Motown & Motor City Inspirations (Motéma). Last year, Motéma released Perfection by the Murray, Allen and Carrington Power Trio.
Geri Antoinette Allen was born on June 12, 1957, in Pontiac, Mich., and raised in the Detroit area, where she began playing piano at 7. She took to jazz early and studied under trumpeter and Jazz Development Workshop director Marcus Belgrave. In 1979 she graduated from Washington, D.C.’s Howard University with a bachelor’s in jazz studies. Allen moved to New York in 1982, then relocated again, earning an M.A. in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh, after which she began her professional career in earnest, touring with Mary Wilson of Motown’s Supremes.
Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, Allen followed an eclectic career trajectory, recording her own projects and collaborating with various artists. Her debut leader album, The Printmakers, was a trio set with bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Andrew Cyrille, recorded in Germany in 1984; she followed it the year after with a solo piano release, Home Grown. Her output during that period also included three trio releases with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, and sidewoman gigs on recordings by Oliver Lake, Dewey Redman, Steve Coleman and Greg Osby—she became involved with the latter two in the M-Base Collective—and others.
Others with whom Allen collaborated during her career included Betty Carter (the singer’s Droppin’ Things and Feed the Fire, both 1993), Ornette Coleman (1996’s Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women) and Charles Lloyd (2002’s Lift Every Voice and 2004’s Jumping the Creek). In 1994 she cut Twenty-One with bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams and, 10 years later, another trio album, The Life of a Song, found Allen in the company of bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, with whom she’d previously worked in Betty Carter’s band. Another musician with whom Allen recorded on occasion was trumpeter Wallace Roney, her husband. (The marriage ended in divorce.)
Her discography includes albums recorded as a leader for Blue Note, Verve, Telarc, Motéma (beginning with the 2010 solo release Flying Toward the Sound) and other labels.
In recent years, Allen was a participant in Terri Lyne Carrington’s Grammy-winning The Mosaic Project, released in 2011, and collaborated further in trios featuring the drummer, one with bassist Esperanza Spalding and another with saxophonist David Murray. She also contributed to Dianne Reeves’ Beautiful Life album, released in 2014.
Allen also received numerous commissions, from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Stanford University, the Walt Whitman Arts Center and other institutions.
In addition to her prolific work in the studio and onstage, Allen—who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008 in the field of music composition—devoted many years to serving as an educator: first, for 10 years, at the University of Michigan and then as the Director of Jazz Studies for her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, in 2013. In 2014, Allen received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music. She was also the musical director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective and, in 2016, became the artistic director of Detroit’s Carr Center, described as a home for African-American cultural arts.
She also received numerous honors, among them Spellman College’s African American Classical Music Award and Howard University’s Distinguished Alumni Award. The Detroit Metro Jazz Festival honored her with a Geri Allen Day, and Harvard University hosted Geri Allen Week. She received an NAACP Image Award nomination in 2011 and also performed in MLK: A Monumental Life, for the unveiling of a Dr. Martin Luther King monument in Washington, D.C.
Allen is survived by her father, brother and three children.