By Joy Ramirez
Geri Allen: A Jazz Icon Merges Two Paths
Like many successful musicians, renowned jazz pianist and award-winning composer Geri Allen knows a thing or two about hard work, dedication to one’s art and perseverance. You don’t accumulate a discography of nearly 20 records and many more as a collaborator, several distinguished awards, a prestigious faculty position and a stunning résumé of musical accomplishments over thirty years as a composer without a strong belief in a dream.
For those just beginning to pursue their dream of a life in music, she has advice worth listening to: “Believe in your gift and continue to hone your craft by revisiting those places which serve as inspirations,” she says. “When I first came to New York (in the early 1980s) I was told there was always room for one more, and if you really love composing, performing or both, then let that love see you through the journey.”
The other important element in a successful career, according to Allen, is education. A product of Cass Technical School, the famous magnet school for music in Detroit where she was born and raised, Allen credits that foundation and the importance of education instilled in her by her parents as early reasons for her professional success. “My father is an educator and both my mother and father taught my brother and I that education was a key to freedom. I have always had a great respect and appreciation for teachers,” she says. Allen has held various academic positions herself, including one at Howard University where she is an alumnus, and currently at the University of Michigan as Associate Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation. She also has a Masters degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh.
With such a strong educational background, it would seem that Allen always knew exactly what road to take. But that wasn’t always the case. She relates how at one point she was forced to choose between performing and continuing her education: “I was asked to go out on the road and was really torn because it was a dream come true to have this possibility, and it was what I was practicing so hard for. But I promised my parents I’d finish school and that is what I did,” says the artist, noting “those family roots run deep.”
Allen remembers being very focused on performance once she finished her degree and moved to New York. There she embarked on an illustrious professional career touring in bands and collaborating with artists as diverse as Mary Wilson and the Supremes to Betty Carter, Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman. She still performs all over the world, having just completed a European tour with her Timeline band which features Allen on piano, Kenny Davis, Kassa Overall and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. She is working on a film for the “Celebrate Brooklyn!” festival this summer with filmmaker Carrie Mae Weems and featuring other notable artists. And she just played the Village Vanguard in New York –where she is a regular—appearing with her trio including Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding.
Now that she divides her time as both an educator and a professional musician, Allen’s two paths have clearly merged. She realizes now that although she wasn’t really focused on teaching, her father’s example must have been a strong force in her life. “The more I have grown into myself,” she says, “the more I understand that being an educator is a real essential part of my make-up.” And, of those lucky enough to have her as a teacher, she remarks, “I enjoy working with students that are inspired and have that drive to evolve.”