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Geri Allen’s Life of a Song


David McKay Wilson and Cindy Gill

Geri Allen (photograph courtesy Telarc)

Piano Woman

Immersed in a world of her own creation, she strokes the piano’s keys. Spun by her hands, spare lines of melody grow into harmonies. Layers of sound flow in waves. Her head sways. She slips into the music. This is the scene many evenings as Geri Allen (FAS ’83) performs in clubs and concert halls throughout the United States and Europe. She is a well-known jazz pianist, who often crafts new material on the road, improvising with her on-stage partners.

“Jazz is a music that speaks about perseverance and the strength of the human spirit,” she says. Allen knows the territory. Recording contracts can be elusive as the music industry toes the bottom line. Between albums, she composes music; performs session work with other artists; and nurtures a family. She survives, says her manager, Ora Harris, “because her talent can’t be denied.” It has been six years since Allen went into the recording studio. Fortunately for jazz lovers worldwide, the hiatus is over. She returned to the studio with what she calls the essence of jazz—piano, bass, and drums. The all-star trio—with Jack DeJohnette behind the drums and Dave Holland playing the bass—recorded The Life of a Song released in August by Telarc. The album explores themes of family, motherhood, and spirituality through Allen’s new compositions and a handful of jazz standards. “With the trio, you have the basic core, the fundamental mothership of jazz,” says Allen.

As a child in Detroit, she studied classical piano. High school teacher and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave inspired and encouraged her love for jazz. She majored in jazz studies at Howard University, then she chose Pitt to develop her art. Among her mentors is Nathan Davis, director of the Pitt Jazz Studies Program. “From the very beginning, Geri has been original,” says Davis, who has recruited Allen several times to play in his all-star bands. “She’s a thinking player whose music has great depth.”

This fall Allen is teaching jazz and improvisation at the University of Michigan. She has much to teach. During her career, she has collaborated with many jazz greats. She also plays with her husband, trumpeter Wallace Roney, both on stage and at home, where a quintet including her children—Laila, 14, Wallace, 8, and Barbara, 6—occasionally improvises.

During the summer, Allen led another quintet at festivals across Europe, where she has developed an avid following. She thrives on spreading the message of jazz wherever she goes. “Jazz,” she says, “transcends cultures and resonates in places all over the world.”

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