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GERI ALLEN,
1957-2017

Pianist and educator Geri Allen, whose versatility and broad stylistic range distinguished her during the 1980s revitalization of jazz, died of cancer Tuesday at a hospital in Philadelphia. She was 60.

Allen emerged on the New York jazz scene in the 1980s after earning a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. Her playing revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument and its most prominent stylists though she was never beholden to jazz’s past. Through working with groundbreaking improvisers of the 1960s and young musicians in their 20s, she was a key musician giving acoustic jazz a new-found relevance in the post-fusion era.  

Early on she was part of Steve Coleman’s nascent M-Base Collective, the Brooklyn-based cooperative that emphasized experimentation, and her earliest recordings were with avant-garde royalty, among them Joseph Jarman, Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake and Fred Hopkins. She recorded her debut as a leader, Printmakers, in 1984, and signed with Bruce Lundvall’s Blue Note in 1988, recording four albums for the label.

She recorded often with legends who helped define jazz in the 1960s, among them the bassists Charlie Haden and Ron Carter, and the drummers Paul Motian and Tony Williams. When Ornette Coleman hired her in the mid-1990s, it was the first time he worked with a pianist in more than 30 years.

She recorded two dozen albums as a leader and about 80 as a side musician. Her most recent albums were on the Motema Music label, the last being a 2016 trio effort with the saxophonist David Murray and drummer Terri Lynne Carrington.

Beyond jazz, she composed for orchestras and the theater. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra commissioned her to write a piece to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; her two theater works were Great Apollo Women and A Conversation with Mary Lou.

Allen became director of the Jazz Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh after teaching for decades at the University of Michigan, Howard University and the New England Conservatory. She was also musical director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective.

In 2014, she received an Honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Jazz Legacy Award. She was also a Guggenheim fellow and the first recipient of the Soul Train, Lady of Soul Award for Jazz.

 

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