jazz master, humble badass: remembering geri allen

July 14, 2017
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Geri Allen was the humblest badass you were ever going to meet, a reserved soul who never failed to catch a fire on the piano, each time you saw her rock the ivories. Her passing on June 27th from liver cancer was a shock to several generations of contemporaries — fans and players alike. Allen’s funeral service in Newark was filled to the rafters with the multi-era créme de la créme of modern-jazz witchery and wizardry: Cassandra Wilson, Carmen Lundy, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, Greg Osby, Kenny Barron, Vijay Iyer, Jack DeJohnette, Oliver Lake, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Nicholas Payton, Joe Lovano and Valerie Simpson from the legendary Motown singer songwriting duo Ashford & Simpson. My own friendship with Geri went back four decades, to when we met at Howard University, in that mid-70s Chocolate City heyday of Washington D.C. In retrospect, Geri was the first person from the Great Black Musical-Gangsta city of Detroit that I had ever met.

Like all Detroiters this reporter was to subsequently meet, Geri had “No BS” inscribed in her DNA, and she planned to be out there swinging for The Black Community first, last and always. This was a product of her being the progeny of amazing parents, from the last place in America where the Black middle class still knows its Blackety-Black, en masse! The No BS clause doesn’t mean people from Detroit can’t be as wacky and peculiar as the rest of us; it just means that if somebody from The D gets introduced to you as about A Certain Thang, trust that they ARE The Real Thang, The Genuine Article, to the bone, no frontin’.

All of which is to say that I never met Geri Allen, the apprentice jazz musician. That was somebody who’d paid her woodshedding dues as a teen at the city’s fabled Cass Tech High School, under trumpeter Marcus Belgrave’s tutelage — all long before she ever set foot on The Mecca, as us Bison call HU’s campus (which all readers of fellow alum Ta-Nehisi Coates know). Meaning, I remember her and future ex-husband, the rangy trumpeter Wallace Roney, as prodigies who regularly gigged around D.C. with veteran master musicians, local and imported. Alongside my fellow Bison home-slice Calvin Reid (whose artwork graces Etudes, a beloved-by-many 1988 Soul Note album featuring Geri, bass legend Charlie Haden and drum titan Paul Motian), I used to stalk Geri into the practice rooms of the university’s Fine Arts Building and harass her into playing our favorite jazz ballads, calling out “All The Things You Are,” or “On Green Dolphin Street” or “I Can’t Get Started” or maybe for kicks, “Un Poco Loco,” just so Calvin and I could pinch ourselves over how Geri instantaneously and effortlessly lay their thorny progressions out, making them all her own.

Later came being spellbound at her graduation recital, which took place at Bill Worrell’s DC Space, the city’s premiere haven for avant-garde improvisation. She performed a majestic evening of music by Black composers working in the Western classical tradition; works by William Grant Still among them (as I recollect), and another really striking piece by a cat with a Muslim name I intended for years to ask her the name of, but never did. Word was she graduated from “The Capstone of Negro Education” and immediately hit the road with Mary Wilson and The Supremes, a solid reconnect with those Detroit roots.

Next time I heard her play was after half our HU crew — Reid, Lewis “Flip” Barnes, Ernest Dickerson and Geri — had all migrated to The Apple. This was around 1985, when the first edition of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements (with Geri, Cassandra Wilson, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith or Mark Johnson) hit at JAM Gallery, a space run by Linda Bryant, the legendary curator-den mother-bon-vivant-doyenne-freeborn-womanist sister who also happened to give the now-famed music producer Craig Street and myself our first NYC jobs.

In mid-‘80s downtown Gotham, the JAM (Just Above Midtown) space was (all-too-briefly) That FUBU Place for our generation’s nascent, Black avant-garde-isms. The last incarnation of JAM had relocated from Tribeca to a pair of floors on Broadway and Broome in SoHo (check that real estate market-price moment bohemian sports fans!), and the same night I ran into Geri there, Linda opened an exhibition of the first Lorna Simpson’s we’d ever bore witness to (the large black & whites with our grrrl Alva Rogers as model and muse, just prior to Alva and Lorna’s roles in the formation of Lisa Jones’ Rodeo Caledonia High Fidelity Performance Theatre). Knowing Linda’s legacy, it now makes perfect sense that so many badass Black feminist artist pioneers of the era would first cross paths there, before conquering the Omniverse. (Go check the “Black Radical Women, 1965-1985” retrospective up at the Brooklyn Museum now to supplement your knowledge on that score.).

That same year, Geri was back at JAM on the halcyon August 13th afternoon when Vernon Reid, Konda Mason, Melvin Gibbs, Street, myself, and a few others, formed the Black Rock Coalition. Dig It: she was a founder of both the innovative M-Base Collective and The BRC. Because she cumulatively hailed from The D, 1970s D.C., and HU, Geri always respected and generously gave spirit and credibility to folks’ efforts that were about The Collective and the community ethos.

Geri’s first album as a leader, The Printmakers featured cover art by Kabuya Pam Bowens, her best friend at HU, and came out on Germany’s Minor Music in 1986. That trio date featured all original compositions and found her in the estimable company of bassist Anthony Cox and Cecil Taylor’s main man on the kit, Andrew Cyrille. On that debut project, you could already hear how 27 year-old Geri had a fully developed, deep playing and compositional language of her own. Kenny Kirkland aside, she’d left her peers in the dust as far as freedom slangin’, original swingin’, hands-on stride-to-freebop virtuosity, reckless abandonment in the bloody improvisational moment, and just utter ovaries-out fearlessness go.

J.T. Lewis recollected of first meeting Geri backstage at DC’s Blues Alley in the ’80s when he was drumming for Don Pullen; how Geri hung out all night with those cats. Like Pullen, Geri had commandeered the entire history of the piano’s expressive range — from Mozart through Mary Lou Williams, Cecil Taylor to all of Miles’ favorite tinklers — and made her firebrand syncretism party to a fluid, highly personal, high-stakes display of keyboard derring-do and gamesmanship every time she sat down at her ax. J.T. also Went There and just said IT: ”If Geri was a man she’d have been celebrated as A Giant a long time ago.” Brother, don’t even get me started.

There were many such moments. We can’t recall if it was Geri or our fellow classmate/BRC road-dogg Bill Toles who brought The Batson Brothers into the Coalition. Mark and Scott were rapping twins from Brooklyn’s Pink Houses projects whose opera-singer dad had made them classically trained, jazz-attuned virtuosi by the time they got to HU; and in 1998, together with Street, they made a three-piano album of Jimi Hendrix material called TRIAD that you mos def need to investigate, their versions of “1983 (A Merman I Will Be)” and “Manic Depression” can still royally stomp that ass with guts and grace. Nor should you fail to note that Geri was the first pianist Ornette Coleman accepted into his ensemble since Walter Norris and Paul Bley in the 1950s, creating two super-deep Sound Museum volumes (Three Women and Hidden Man) in 1996. The space that love demands for a pianist in Ornette’s music appears daunting, cold and deep, but — no surprise — Geri aced that challenge like tain’t nobody’s business. Just as she surely did in Robert Altman’s 1996 film, Kansas City, where Geri not only gave her personal best, swing-time Mary Lou Williams impression, but sublimely mirrored the ease with which her predecessor had contemporaneously dealt herself into a room stock full of rampant, unrepentant jazz machismo. So, not a game for a woman player — not in jazz circa ’34, nor’ 96, nor even now — no matter how hip, resilient and adept the Playa-Woman may be. Then again, she’s Geri Allen, and as Marc Cary will tell you, being deemed fit for the stage — a theatre of war, really — tends to render shutting up the jazz boys club of America moot.

Geri graciously tapped yours truly to submit a poem for her 1992 album, Maroons, and to write liner notes for her 2013 Motéma album, Timeline Live — the latter, the recorded debut of her group with Kenny Davis, Kassa Overall and tap-dancer Maurice Chestnut. We last collaborated on an evening at The Stone in 2014. I convinced her that this reporter was no longer writing poetry as fiery and absurdist as she so fondly recalled from our HU daze, but I did have this play that imagined MLK and Malcolm X as alternate-universe BFFs which would require her take on some rather knotty music by Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. Geri, of course, made handy snacks out of those gripping, masterful works.

Geri also had several large-scale conceptual and orchestral works of her own that she’d developed over the last two decades. There was “For The Healing of the Nations,” a “Sacred Jazz Suite for Voices” that she had written in tribute to the victims, survivors and the families of the 9/11 attacks. There was the Mary Lou Williams Cyber Symposium she had conceived and produced as part of the University of Pittsburgh’s jazz studies program, of which she was the director. There was “Slow Fade To Black,” a dance and film collaboration with the artist Carrie Mae Weems; and also Grand River Crossings (Motown & Motor City Inspirations), an album of Motown hit re-interpretations.

Like many who’ve already anecdotally posted and grieved on social media, I find the notion of talking about Geri Allen in the past tense to be beyond shocking, depressing, gut-pummeling. Because there are also three of Geri’s progeny, all still in their 20s, to mourn for too. Chile, you already know: our ongoing memorial services will be a ceaseless tsunami of a tear-fest no matter how buoyant our second-lines are determined to be.

True confession time: Geri played the Summer Garden series at the Museum of Modern Art in 2011, and mid-performance I had the kind of epiphany one can only have when it smacks you dead upside your doofus noggin: that somebody you’ve known since you were both collegiate-age babies has done ascended to that Olympian realm where only The Masters dwell. In fact, I distinctly remember idiotically thinking to Self, ”Yo, Self, you do know that whenever Cecil, McCoy, Herbie, and Chick all check out, the building will totally belong to Geri, right?” Well, duh-nuh ninja. But now? Tis just like that scene in Good Times, when Esther Rolle’s Flo learns about the death of John Amos’ character: “Damn Damn Damn!”