Geri Allen was a musically adventurous jazz pianist and bandleader who played with the leading musicians of her time, from Ornette Coleman to Wayne Shorter, and who furthered the careers of other women in jazz. She was known for her eclectic approach, exploring the traditions of jazz and reaching into some of its more arcane byways.
She portrayed pianist Mary Lou Williams in the 1996 Robert Altman film Kansas City, set in the 1930s, but she also dipped into a variety of other styles, from the Motown music of her native Detroit to electronic music and classical works. “I like to look at the piano as a drum,” she said, “as 88 drums with pitch. Rhythm is the core of my music.”
Allen was one of the leading pianists of her generation and, as the Los Angeles Times critic Don Heckman wrote in 2006, “long overdue for the sort of recognition that accrues for the top level of jazz performers.”
In the 1980s, Allen toured with Mary Wilson, a former member of the Supremes from whom she said she borrowed fashion ideas. A decade later, Allen accompanied another singer from Detroit, jazz singer Betty Carter, and performed on Carter’s Grammy Award- winning album Droppin’ Things.
Allen released more than 20 albums as a bandleader, many of which featured her compositions, and she collaborated on recordings with rock guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour and jazz masters including bassists Ron Carter, Charlie Haden and Dave Holland and drummers Paul Motian and Jimmy Cobb. In 1996, she became the first acoustic pianist in almost 40 years to record with Ornette Coleman. Their work was documented on two albums, Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women.
“Why can’t I explore the whole universe of music that’s available to me?” Allen said in 1992. “There’s a point of view that suggests that you can do something much better if you focus on one thing, but it’s my nature to be curious, and to go back and forth between different contexts, such as playing solo, trio and large groups, or using electronic stuff.”
Allen also wrote symphonic works, developed theatrical projects and become a prominent jazz educator, first at her alma mater, Howard University in Washington and later at the University of Michigan and Pitt.
Throughout her career, Allen helped rediscover the historical role of women in jazz. She recorded Williams’ Zodiac Suite and often appeared at the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival at the…