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FEATURE

Geri Allen Emerges as One of the Most Talanted,
and the Most Scholary, Innovators in Jazz.
ON A DIFFERENT NOTE
WRITTEN BY LAURA SHEFLER
Standing straight and alert, Geri Allen walks past the grand piano and steps up to where she belongs, at the front of the William Pitt Union Assembly Room. Everyone applauds, and you can guess who the piano players in the audience are -- the stylishly bald young man in the front row, perhaps, or the woman with her hair in thick braids, sitting by the aisle -- because they're the people who lean forward a little in their seats. Allen is one of the best young pianists in contemporary jazz, known for her daring, harmonically complex style of playing, and she has come here to the William Pitt Union to teach a master class as part of Pitt's 24th annual Jazz Seminar and Concert. As the applause fades, she adjusts the microphone that's clipped to her elegant, dusty-green blazer. Raising her head, she looks out over the crowd. She takes a deep breath and, in a moment of tension or shyness, she rubs her face with one hand before she speaks.

You might expect Allen (Arts and Sciences '83), an international performer as well as a star on the New York music scene, to come across as slick and super-polished. Instead, she addresses her audience of music students and music fans with down-to-earth modesty. "Hello to everyone," she begins. She praises the talk that her fellow musician Ray Drummond has just given on the history of solo jazz bass: "That last presentation was really...." She breaks off, shaking her head in admiration. "I have to follow that now."

Allen's high regard for Drummond arises, in part, out of her recognition of the profoundly interdependent nature of jazz. This music, she knows, is a community enterprise. The following night, she and Drummond and the rest of the musicians in town for Pitt's jazz concert will play together intimately, as jazz musicians must, improvising from one another's rhythms and musical phrases.

When it comes to success, jazz musicians are not like rock stars, whose status grows out of their popularity with fans. Jazz artists like Allen depend on the support of other musicians, on the influence and guidance of their elders, on the respect of their peers. Thus, the expressions of appreciation that they make toward one another are both frequent and heartfelt.

But if this particular expression of appreciation comes wrapped up with an expression of nervousness, that's understandable, too. Pitt is a familiar place for Allen, but with this visit she has assumed an unfamiliar role. Allen first arrived at the University as a young, impressive talent -- promising, but unformed in many ways. Under the tutelage of music professor Nathan Davis, a world-class saxophonist and the force behind the Jazz Seminar and Concert, Allen earned a master's degree in ethnomusicology. All the while, she was spending long hours in the practice rooms of Pitt's Music Building, working out the details of the challenging, idiosyncratic piano style for which she is now known. She has attended Pitt's jazz seminars many times, but always as a student rather than a teacher. In the past years, she was one of the piano players in the audience, leaning forward in her seat. This time, she is instead at the center of attention, standing alone at the front of the room, with her shoulders pulled back and her feet planted wide. She is taking her place among people who were once her teachers. And even for someone as accomplished as Allen, this can be a daunting thing to do.

Still, Allen's desire to talk about the music carries her along. Soon, she is vividly describing the differences between the two great traditions in jazz piano. The "two-fisted" style, which originated just before the 1920s with Jelly Roll Morton, emphasized the active role of the left hand. "The piano would produce what the band was playing," Allen says of Morton's New Orleans ragtime bands. That meant that the pianist's left hand played chords similar to those of the bass and tuba in the rhythm section.

By contrast, in the modern piano style, pioneered during the 1920s and '30s by Pittsburgh-born Earl "Fatha" Hines, the left hand plays more sparsely. The modern style emphasizes instead the melodic improvisation of the right hand. "In my own style," Allen concludes, "I wanted to include my love and respect of both those ways of playing. With that in mind, I'd like to play something called 'In the Middle.'"

When Allen sits down and touches the keys, the piano players in the audience lean forward even further. In the front row, a woman wordlessly changes places with the man sitting next to her so that he can have a better view of Allen's hands.

Bass notes tumble from the piano, and Allen's right heel taps out a quick beat. The music presses forward, and you can hear some of the innovative qualities for which Allen is known: the quirky, insistent left-hand rhythms. The seductive lines of melody that unexpectedly dart or dive, that slide from trilling arpeggios into a funk beat.

Still, despite the dynamism of the music, there's something tense about Allen's body language. Her unbending posture contrasts with the flight of her hands over the keys. Occasionally, one of her shoulders gives a little swing.

Then, halfway through this piece, with its intricate harmonies, its rich, rolling waves of sound, Geri Allen disappears into the music. The stiffness vanishes. Any lingering self-consciousness she might have had lets go. Her shoulders move up and down and her head tosses, and suddently you can see that she makes music with her whole self and not just her hands.

GERI ALLEN WAS A teenager growing up in Detroit when she made the decision to pursue a jazz career -- a tender age, but not too soon to start. The jazz apprenticeship is long and arduous. The life of a "young" jazz musician begins early and lasts for decades.

Allen had been taking classical piano lessons since the age of seven. Of her classical piano teacher, Patricia Wilhelm, Allen recalls, "She was very open minded. She didn't discourage me from pursuing my other musical interests. She didn't understand them, but she didn't try to discourage me." Those interests included the Motown hits and other popular music of the era. In her teens, she spent a lot of time listening to songs on the radio and then trying to play them. Her interests also included jazz that she heard on records that her father played around the house.

Allen found her musical focus, however, while attending Cass Technical, a distinguished performing arts high school where the alumni included Donald Byrd, the trumpeter with the Jazz Messengers, and where Allen's classmates included keyboardist Greg Philliganes, who later played with Paul Simon.

"It was a very competitive environment," Allen remembers. It was in this high-powered, jazz-infused atmosphere that the idea "crystallized" that she wanted to spend her life playing this music. "Everything seemed clear," she says now. "I think I was certain of the love I had for the music -- and still do."

One turning point for her at Cass Technical was meeting the trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, a pillar of the Detroit jazz community, who took her on as a prot┌g┌e, bringing her with him to play on gigs. He was the kind of formidable mentor who did not hesitate to confront a pupil's youthful lapses of appreciation for her musical heritage. "I remember telling Marcus, 'I don't like the blues,'" Allen recounts, with good humor, "and a rage came over him, and he shouted at me and made me cry. He said, 'How can you not love the blues? You are the blues.'"

From Detroit, Allen went to Howard University in Washington, DC, where she majored in jazz studies. Through a seminar at Howard, she met Pitt's Nathan Davis, who talked to her about the possibility of exploring jazz through a scholarly career.

After graduating, Allen set her sights on the uncertain task of establishing herself as a professional musician. "I was in New York trying to figure out: How was I going to make it? Was I ready?" she says. Davis, who had kept in touch, invited her to come to Pitt instead. The opportunity provided Allen with a way to stay immersed in music while finding respite from the pressures of the New York scene.

Here, she studied not only with Davis, but also with (the now-retired) professor J. H. Kwabena Nketia, one of the world's leading scholars of African music. "My focus was jazz," she says, "but I did have the opportunity to study music from all over the world." At Pitt, she encountered the rhythms of Africa and Brazil and Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean, rhythms that would later work their way into her jazz compositions. "It is really all one long continuum of African culture," she marvels. "When you look at all these different kinds of music, you can see how related they are, and yet how unique each one is."

During the years when she fine tuned her scholarly voice at Pitt, Allen was also searching for a distinctive musical voice.

Allen explains that, in her view, a jazz musician creates an individual style by absorbing and distilling the influence of other artists. Her own inspirations include Mary Lou Williams, a pianist whose six-decade career included long associations with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman; Art Tatum, one of the later masters of the two-fisted tradition; and the modern pianists Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Ahmad Jamal, and Herbie Hancock.

It was here at Pitt that she began in earnest to assess what she could learn from them about accuracy and harmony and rhythm and melody. It was here that she began to ask herself how she, as a composer, was going to reconcile her diverse musical loves, from boogie-woogie to bebop to Bach. And it was here, out of the hard work of listening and practicing and experimenting on the piano, that her own musical ideas began to take shape. "I did a lot of composing while I was in Pittsburgh," says Allen. "I developed my solo piano style there. And by the time I left, I had a concept of how I wanted to present my music."

FOR GERI ALLEN, THE reward for the kind of good hard work she did at Pitt was, well, more hard work. After returning to New York, Allen has divided her energies among a remarkably diverse portfolio of projects. Over the years, she established herself as a sideperson with some of the best-known experimental jazz musicians, such as the saxophonists Oliver Lake and Dewey Redman. At the same time, she was also playing with M-Base, a collective of young musicians exploring interconnections among jazz, funk, and hip-hop music. She even played keyboards for a while with an early incarnation of the funk/heavy metal band Living Colour.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Allen concentrated intently on her own music, focusing on composition, on solo performances, and on playing in small jazz groups. Two of her recent releases, The Nurturer (1991) and Maroons (1992), reunite her with her mentor Marcus Belgrave. The Nurturer, a tribute to Belgrave, also features the saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who played with the late Miles Davis, and the bassist Bob Hurst, who has worked for Branford Marsalis. She has also performed extensively with renowned trumpeter Wallace Roney, a schoolmate from her Howard University days.

Her success has brought her new connections with some of the most famous jazz musicians in the world. In 1994, she toured with Ornette Coleman, the legendary saxophone innovator. She has also been accompanying the eminent jazz vocalist Betty Carter, and she headlines on Carter's Feed the Fire, recorded live in concert in London. (For this release, Allen composed the title track.)

Allen's own most recent release, Twenty One, is a collaboration with the formidable bassist and the accomplished drummer whom she unfailingly refers to as "the great" Ron Carter and "the great" Tony Williamsäjazz veterans whose distinguished careers, including their work with Miles Davis, have brought them lasting fame.

In addition, she has been hard at work on the score to a theater piece called Sister No Blues, commissioned by the American Musical Theater. Allen has seen the piece through several changes of playwright, adapting her compositions to interweave with the plot as it has evolved. Sister No Blues examines the lives of a great jazz diva and the three younger women who are her prot┌g┌es.

"These are three very different women, very strong, each with her own solo career," Allen says. "It's about the dynamic among them and how they go about fighting their own egos so that they can make the music and be the greatest they can be."

This idea -- that your ego can get in the way of your music -- is one that guides Geri Allen in her own life. Where less reflective musicians might take playing with Ornette Coleman and Betty Carter as a sign that they had made it, here is what Allen has to say: "I am very humbled by all of this wonderful music, and I am really trying to practice and study and get better."

In fact, she is eager to talk about just what practicing and getting better means on a day-to-day basis. "I still study the great pianists," she says. Recently, for instance, she's been analyzing the work of Bud Powell, who is known for his collaborations with the saxophonist Charlie Parker. Says Allen, "Every day, I'll spend a period of time studying Bud Powell's music. I'll try to transcribe some of it. I'll listen to all the details, from his phrasing to his tone production to the way he negotiated harmonies. Then I'll sit down and try to imitate that.

"I also think there should be a certain amount of creative practice every day," she adds. She concedes that, between travelling and performing -- not to mention caring for her four-year-old daughter -- it's sometimes hard to get in as much practice as she'd like: "It takes a lot of time."

Still, she emphasizes the importance of dedication: "I want to perfect myself as far as I can, and that is achieved by a specific process that involves daily commitment."

It's important to realize that the serious and sometimes self-effacing comments that Geri Allen makes arise not out of a lack of confidence, then, but rather out of the magnitude of her aspirations. In what she calls her "loftier moments," she sets her sights on attaining the originality and the virtuosity and the lasting influence of legendary players like Thelonious Monk or Bud Powell.

"I try to look to the greatest musicians and say, 'I want to approach that,'" Allen admits. It is an effort to which she brings her whole self: her hands and her heart, her talent, her intellect, her sense of discipline, and that emotion musicians call "a love for the music" -- an emotion that's one part sheer enjoyment and one part beautiful, passionate need.


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