Pianist Geri Allen stands on the cutting edge of New York’s improvisational scene and is, according to Musician, “one of the most original stylists to emerge on the instrument in the past 25 years.” Like pianists Randy Weston and McCoy Tyner, she has tapped her ancestral roots to create a sound that connects American jazz with African folk music.
Allen prefers not to use the word “jazz” when describing her music—its etymology, she believes, is derogatory. Indeed, it is extremely difficult to find any one word to describe her sound. Blues, funk, gospel, and jazz joyously and often chaotically intermingle in her compositions. Her melodies, full of jabs, twists, and spirals, are so unusual that the New York Times wrote that she “seems to rarely play a phrase that’s been heard before.” But the cornerstones of her style are crisscrossing rhythms and a solid, snappable groove.
“I don’t care what kind of beat it has,” Allen stated in Keyboard, “I just want it to have the kind of momentum to make people feel something and move. You hear it in African drum choirs, where each drummer has an assigned rhythm. Same with George Clinton and Prince: Everyone has their spot and settles into it. ... I want my music to dance. Bird’s [saxophonist Charlie Parker] music had that. James Brown makes me want to move. Cecil Taylor’s music dances for me.” “To me, the greatest players are the ones who were the most rhythmic,” she told Contemporary Musicians (CM ). “I like to look at the piano as a drum also, as 88 drums with pitch. Rhythm is the core of my music. The notes, in a way, are secondary.”
Allen was born in 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan, and raised in nearby Detroit. At the age of seven she began lessons in classical piano with a local teacher. Her parents were adamant that she also explore other forms of art. “I had an affinity for the visual arts, I liked dance, and liked to draw,” she revealed in Down Beat. “Eventually piano won out. We used to go to young people’s concerts. I’d have to practice before I could go outside. But by high school I got into it because they had stayed on me, and once my father acted like he was really going to cancel my lessons if I didn’t get it together.”
Allen credits her father, a teacher, with fostering her appreciation for the jazz tradition. “My father’s not a musician,” she said in Down Beat, “but he was always very much into Charlie Parker. He listened, he actually
For the Record…
Born in 1957 in Pontiac, MI; father was a teacher; children: Laila Faiz. Education: Studied improvisation with trumpeter Marcus Belgrave; Howard University, B.A. in jazz studies, 1979; University of Pittsburgh, M.A. in Ethnomusicology, 1982; studied with pianist Kenny Barron.
Began piano lessons, c. 1964; sang in church choir and played piano in church and at community events; collaborated with saxophonists Oliver Lake and Steve Coleman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, and flutist James Newton, among others; toured Europe, 1984; released debut recording, Printmakers ; performed and recorded in U.S. and abroad with numerous musicians, including Dewey Redman, Greg Osby, Wayne Shorter, Vernon Reid, Joseph Jarman, Ralph Peterson, and Arthur Blythe; co-founded trio with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, 1988.
Awards: Eubie Blake Award from Cultural Crossroads, 1988; Etude named record of the year, 1989, Down Beat critics poll; named jazz musician of 1989 and best emerging talent, 1990, Jazz Times critics poll; SESAE Special Achievement Award, 1991; Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard University.
went out and heard a lot of these guys when they were living. So the music was played around the house. My brother and I sometimes protested, because at the time we were into the Jackson Five and this, that, and the other. I guess later on I started to have more of an understanding of what it was my father was playing. I also grew up listening to James Brown and Motown because they were really strong at the time, and later George Clinton. They are just as much a part of my musical upbringing as the music my father played.”
“Once I decided to be an improviser,” she illuminated in Keyboard, “all those years of hearing the music around the house planted a seed inside of me.” During high school she learned the essentials of composing, arranging, and improvisation in the Jazz Development Workshop, an unusual class led by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, pianist Kirk Lightsey, drummer Roy Brooks, and other jazz veterans. “We’d rehearse traditional charts—Thad Jones’s music, Ellington’s music—and we’d also have a chance to write and check out our own in a sort of learn-on-the-spot environment,” she remembered in Down Beat. A large part of the course’s value, she told Keyboard, came from just hearing her teachers play. “We could see what the distance was between where they were and where we were. I always liked being around older musicians. The way they felt time was so very different from the way I did.”
In 1975 Allen entered Howard University, where she studied piano with John Malachi, who had played with Parker and singer/multi-instrumentalist Billy Eckstine. At the same time she struck up a friendship with the instructor of her African dance class, a master drummer from Ghana, who headed the university’s ethnomusicology center. “That was my first experience with looking at ethnic music as an approach, or a study,” Allen disclosed to CM. “We have a tendency to think of the West as the beginning, the Alpha and the Omega—and it really isn’t. It’s one way of thinking about life and music. In every other culture there are complete worlds, just as there are in the West. It was really important for me to look at those, because I wanted them to influence my music as well as my life.”
One of the first at Howard to graduate with a degree in jazz studies, Allen enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to do graduate work in ethnomusicology. For her thesis topic she chose the music of Eric Dolphy, the reedist/flutist whose distinctive style was derived from jazz and traditional African music. “I had always been touched by his music and wanted to get very close to it,” Allen reported in Down Beat. Yet she grew frustrated in her research.
Many of the books she consulted, she told CM, were written by “writers from other cultures, particularly from the West, who came to these older-world cultures and described them in terms that were denigrating. I’ve seen this written in many different places—adjectives like ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian.’ ‘Primitive’ was used in the derogatory sense and not in the sense of being first—first race, first culture. It was more used in a way that elevated the West and put down older-world cultures, particularly Africa.” Through that experience, she added, “it’s become an important challenge for me, at some point in my life, to be one of the people that discusses African-American music.”
While at graduate school, Allen continued to grow as a musician, playing gigs and absorbing worldwide ethnic styles as well as the avant-jazz of AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), a nonprofit organization whose members were building new jazz vocabularies through their explorations of African folk music.
Gradually, these sounds began to influence Allen’s own music. In 1982 she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, moved to Brooklyn, and began studies with pianist Kenny Barron. One of her first jobs was a six-month stint playing Motown tunes behind ex-Supreme Mary Wilson. By 1984 she was playing with some of the AACM musicians she had revered as a student—trumpeter Lester Bowie, reed player Joseph Jarman, saxophonist Oliver Lake, and others—as well as leading her own quartet on a brief European tour.
The 1980s were fruitful years for Allen. She launched her recording career with the trio album The Printmakers, followed by an equally impressive solo album titled Home Grown. She continued to work with Open On All Sides, an octet she had formed in Detroit during the 1970s. The group was a perfect vehicle for her wide-ranging talents; its 1987 release In the Middle dazzled even the New York Times: “This time Ms. Allen has decided to cut loose as a composer, arranger, keyboard player and even a nonsequitur-slinging lyricist,” wrote reviewer Jon Pareles. “The style is utterly polymorphous. It’s probably the only album ever released with synthesizers and tap-dancing in the same tune.”
Allen also performed with M-BASE, a collective of young, progressive black musicians who, like herself, wanted to create a new improvisational language that carried a sense of African history. At the same time, she became involved in the Black Rock Coalition, an organization founded by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid to fight racial discrimination in the music industry.
Toward the end of the decade Allen recorded Twylight, an exotic trio album of original tunes, and began performing and recording with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian. In 1989 she was commissioned by a fan to compose a concert piece. The result was Suite for Eric Dolphy, which she premiered in Amsterdam with her 12-piece Celebration Ensemble. The same year she also composed American Portraits, a piano suite whose movements are dedicated to Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, and other piano greats.
Like many composers, Allen is frequently inspired by dreams. “I often wake up hearing something,” she divulged in Keyboard. “Sometimes it’s a rhythmic motif or part of a bass line; sometimes I hear poetry and the music will come from the lyric. I can’t always retain it when I wake up, though. I have to run to the piano and just pick up snatches of the idea.” Other times, ideas come to her while improvising. “In a lot of ways my compositions are improvisations that have been notated,” she explained to CM. “When I sit down to improvise, I try to be very selective. I don’t always succeed. . . . What I’m trying to access with these 88 keys is something very individual, very much myself, in the ways that the masters have illustrated for us. And that takes a certain kind of confidence, a humble confidence.”
Allen’s perception of music itself is shaped by the African tradition. In African culture, she told Mother Jones, “there aren’t distinctions as to what music is, what dance is—it’s the experience of culture. That isn’t as prevalent now in African-American culture. But as a child, I would play in situations where people would dance to music, participating in the experience as much as the musicians were. That’s a memory I hold onto as a reference, how I like my music always to be.”
In 1991 Allen recruited Branford Marsalis’s rhythm section to record The Nurturer, her first release on the Blue Note label. The album, a tribute to the Detroit musicians who had profoundly influenced her music, won high acclaim from both critics and fans, and was hailed as “a landmark recording” by the New York Times.
The title of Allen’s next album, Maroons, refers to the Maroons of Jamaica, 18th-century Africans who resisted British enslavement. In a Blue Note press release, Allen declared it a tribute to the “warrior spirit of those who stand up for things that are right.” Maroons, a compelling blend of offbeat rhythms, blues and boogie, was an overwhelming success and established Allen’s reputation among the jazz elite.
Allen’s record sales increased dramatically when she was invited by Branford Marsalis to sit in with his band for an evening on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Though the exposure was minimal—Allen was seen briefly as the band played in and out of commercials—it was enough to significantly boost interest in Allen’s work. “After my appearance, I got feedback from all over the country,” she revealed to Down Beat ’s Fred Shuster. “There was quite a response. People were suddenly aware of me in a different kind of way.”
(With Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille) The Printmakers, Minor Music, 1984.
Home Grown, Minor Music, 1985.
(With Open On All Sides) In the Middle, Minor Music, 1987.
(With Charlie Haden and Paul Motian) Etudes, Soul Note, 1988.
(With Tani Tabbal and Jaribu Shahid) Twylight, PolyGram Jazz, 1989.
(With Haden and Motian) Year of the Dragon, PolyGram, 1990.
The Nurturer, Blue Note, 1991.
Maroons, Blue Note, 1992.
(Contributor) Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, Columbia, 1992.
(With Ralph Peterson) Triangular, Blue Note.
Also composer of Suite for Eric Dolphy and American Portraits, both 1989.
Audio, January 1990.
Down Beat, July 1988; March 1989; February 1990; March 1993.
Herald-Sun (Durham, NC), December 3, 1992.
Hot House, December 1992.
Jazziz, October/November 1987.
Keyboard, June 1987.
Mother Jones, October 1989.
Musician, January 1990; February 1993.
New York Times, October 27, 1987; December 9, 1988; January 20, 1989; January 27, 1989; January 7, 1990.
People, February 13, 1989.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 20, 1988.
Philadelphia Tribune, November 27, 1992.
Pulse!, December 1992.
Village Voice, August 29, 1989.
Wire, April 1989.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Blue Note Records press materials, 1992, and a Contemporary Musicians interview with Geri Allen.
"Allen, Geri." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/allen-geri
"Allen, Geri." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/allen-geri
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