The news that Geri Allen has died from cancer at the age of just 60 is tragic for many reasons. She was in a creatively rich phase of her own impressive career, playing solo, and working closely with Teri Lynne Carrington on her Mosaic Project, which, although women-focused, was important to male and female jazz artists alike. Gender issues were prominent in Allen’s life nonetheless. When I met her in the late 1990s she made a point of telling me about the place of women such as Lil Hardin, wife of Louis Armstrong, and Mary Lou Williams in the history of modern music. She saw the necessity of recognising their work.
Born in Pontiac, Michigan, Allen was thoroughly immersed in Detroit’s bebop and soul traditions, and one of her first significant gigs as a sidewoman was with Motown legends Mary Wilson and the Supremes. But it soon became clear that Allen was intent on engaging with the entire spectrum of black music, in both art and pop incarnations, and that led her to reflect the influence of Cecil Taylor and Bud Powell as well as Stevie Wonder and Ornette Coleman in her own work. After graduating from Howard University and the University of Pittsburgh Allen settled in New York in the early 1980s, working with avant-garde legends Lester Bowie and Andrew Cyrille, who featured on her auspicious 1984 debut The Printmakers.
Allen became part of two landmark collectives, the Black Rock Coalition and M-BASE, and made a vital appearance on recordings by the latter’s founder Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson. Yet she really came into her own as a composer and improviser on the albums she cut in the 1990s, such as the politically charged Maroons, Eyes In The Back Of Your Head, featuring Ornette, and the superb The Gathering, a session that reunited her with BRC colleagues like Vernon Reid and struck a perfect balance between funky immediacy and probing introspection.
Allen married trumpeter Wallace Roney, combined her musical activities with motherhood, and also nurtured many young players. She had an all-encompassing approach to piano and keys that enabled her to move from the sweetest of melodicism to the most turbulent abstractions, and this ‘Open on all sides in the middle’ aesthetic was a notable prelude to the arrival of the likes of Robert Mitchell and Craig Taborn.
– Kevin Le Gendre
– Photo courtesy of Anthony Barboza