Timeless Portraits : Saturday at Harvard, honoring Geri Allen

After a long Friday night concert (the SATURDAY night concert is here don’t miss it), people came for second day of the panels, beginning with Geri Allen as Scholar and Educator. Ingrid Monson moderated.

Monson, Michael Heller, Aaron Johnson, Mount Allen, Yoko Suzuki .. Heller, Johnson and Suzuki were Allen’s colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh .. Mount Allen is Geri’s brother .. Melissa Blackall Photography, thanks to Hutchins Center at Harvard University

Mount Allen III is Director of Operations at SFJAZZ in San Francisco. He described “Geri and Mount Allen’s Scheme for World Domination through Global Literacy” – strategizing to synch up performers in distant studios and deliver a concert to audiences at minority-serving institutions. He calls it “the new underground railroad.” Geri was on board; she always wanted to bring opportunity to African-American students. High tech/low tech: she also loved working with tap dancers. As Michael Heller, her colleague at the University of Pittsburgh,  said “Geri could track so many things at once.” Together Allen and Heller acquired and processed the Erroll Garner Collection for U Pitt. Heller and colleague Aaron Johnson described Geri as a motivator. “She roped people in to doing things,” said Johnson. “She would make you speak your intentions,” said Heller, and then publicly restate them on your behalf. Saxophonist Yoko Suzuki was a fellow teacher and close colleague who described Allen as “inclusive, accessible . . . . She broke down music into parts.” Johnson chimed in “No graduate student left behind.”

Allen also created the summer jazz camp for girls at Montclair State University in New Jersey; it continues at NJPAC in Newark.

Bandmates Esperanza Spalding (moderator), Terri Lyne Carrington, Kenny Davis, Carmen Lundy, Kassa Overall discuss Allen’s Music and Vision

The Working with Geri Allen panel sat in a sunbeam! I think this photo shows bassist Kenny Davis telling us how he gave Geri a Zoom recorder to replace an ancient cassette device. It was as though “… I bought her a Porsche!” Carmen Lundy played a personal video compiled from phone-captured “footage” of Carmen, Geri and others traveling in Europe. For a moment we heard Geri speak, standing at the foot of Montmartre, commenting on Paris. Beautiful seat-of-the-pants production, Carmen! Citing “Drummer’s Song” (Open on All Sides in the Middle from 1987, Twenty-One from 1994), Terri Lyne Carrington noted Allen’s “layering of phrases so you don’t get tired” — “we became a band that’s real stretchy” in drummer Kassa Overall’s words — and described her music as having “the beauty of a rose and the aggression of a tornado.”

Monson, Vijay Iyer, Don Byron, Dwight Andrews

As a panelist for Geri Allen’s Place in History, Don Byron’s description of Tower Records on lower Broadway in the mid 1980s was accurate. The low-ceilinged jazz department, the politics of how LPs were sorted and filed, the knowledgeable salespeople, the stress when they put your album in the wrong bin. That’s the era in which Allen and Byron made their New York entrances. (Both eventually moved elsewhere.) The two are on the soundtrack to the 1996 film Kansas City and, coincidentally, share a 2004 NYT review of Byron’s Ivey-Divey (Blue Note) and Allen’s The Life of a Song (Telarc). Allen recorded on the Blue Note, Verve, Telarc and Motéma labels.

In 2013 and 2016, Allen musically directed two stage productions, “Celebrating the Great Jazz Women of the Apollo” and “A Conversation with Mary Lou Williams.” She asked actress S. Epatha Merkerson of Law and Order to direct the shows and Farah Jasmine Griffin to write. On the closing panel, Merkerson spoke of how the three brainstormed to develop scripts and staging, how Geri loved to incorporate new performers – an organist, a dancer – at the last minute, how working with Allen diversified Merkerson’s career. Allen’s long-time manager Ora Harris, saxophonist Tia Fuller, Carrington and Lundy completed this discussion. After dinner came the Geri Allen Tribute concert. The panelists became performers, and there’s a video on the WGBH Facebook page, here. Go see it! Below is the set list; neither songs nor performers are named from the stage. The music speaks.

Stage manager’s marked-up set list, photo by BP

Geri Allen was born and raised in Detroit. She graduated from Howard University and earned her Master’s in Ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. She wrote her thesis about Eric Dolphy, and her composition “Dolphy’s Dance” is on the above  list. She composed from life. Allen had three children who are ever-present in her music. She led or played on at least 50 albums with several generations of artists. She performed internationally on esteemed stages. She actively sought  to play for children, older people, people at church. I wish we had more documentation of her in these community situations.

But I don’t want to wish, I want to pivot the narrative now and in the future. As Farah Jasmine Griffin challenged us in her keynote speech, it’s possible to “Imagine a story of jazz in which Geri is central from now on.” We should, we can and I hope we will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *