2019 Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival (Photo courtesy/Jati Lindsay)
2019 Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival (Photo courtesy/Jati Lindsay)

When pianist, composer, educator and Guggenheim Fellow Geri Allen died in June 2017, she left an abruptly interrupted stellar career with colleagues and collaborators reeling in the wake of her untimely death. Students also grappled to hold on to the nuggets of wisdom she instilled in them, whether at the New England Conservatory, University of Michigan or closer to home at Howard University, where she was a member of the faculty.

One of her closest collaborators and friend, jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington was so moved and awed by Allen, that she curated an entire concert dedicated to the 60-year-old with whom she worked in two ensembles, ACS, namely Allen, Carrington, and bassist Esperanza Spalding,  and MAC Power Trio with Carrington and saxophonist David Murray.

“Feed the Fire: A Tribute to Geri Allen” served as the opening for the two-day Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival held recently at the Kennedy Center and featured an impressive ensemble of musicians hosted by vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. The group included Carrington on drums, bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (the progeny of John and Alice Coltrane), Jason Moran on piano, Deejay percussionist Val Jeanty and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. All who appeared for the moving tribute had worked with Allen and were deeply influenced by her dedication to music, unrelenting work ethic and experimental nature which urged musicians to push the envelope of jazz virtuosity.

“Geri provided a great example of how to make people in this sometimes wretched business treat you with respect — as a woman and as an artist,” Carrington lovingly wrote in her tribute essay. “She knew who she was, even if others took a while to catch up. Her resistance to accepting what she felt was unfair to our co-lead bands, helped me to better see my own value. She combated the representative mindset of people that devalue (knowingly or unknowingly) the work that we as artist do.

“I learned many things from Geri,” she continued. “But the most evident were how to graciously be a fighter, how to be artistically edgy and fearless, how to demand respect and how to be a musician-mom.”

Allen’s storied career and its resonance often fly under the radar of well-known names in jazz. But she was foundational, as the musical director for the Mary Lou Williams Collective, she recorded and performed the music of the late, great jazz pianist whose work would support and enhance the compositions of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, as well as being a mentor to Thelonious Monk.

Allen also had a significant relationship with Howard University, serving in the School of Fine Arts Music Department on the faculty. But she had a deeper tie to the Mecca, having graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies.

Allen received the Howard University Pinnacle Award presented by Professor Connaitre Miller and Afro Blue, the jazz vocal ensemble that named themselves for Allen’s first album of the same name.

For Allen Howard University remained a home of sorts, as evidenced by the frequent times she visited the school for seminars and workshops in addition to serving as a visiting faculty member.

“I’m eternally grateful to Howard and its impact on me,” Allen said in the alumni magazine story. “I’m never going to stay away from Howard. Not at all. I owe it too much.”  

During the 90-minute tribute, each artist said words about their relationship with Allen before soloing on one of her many well-known songs, including “Soul Eyes,” “Open on All Sides,” and “Feed the Fire.”

A film of her playing was created for the concert, entitled “Talking Hands,” it showed Allen’s stroke of the keys to elicit her unique sound. A loop of photos of Allen also ran in the background while her colleagues spoke of her and played her work emotionally.

“Without question, Geri Allen was a master. Her standards were high and she created value with everything that she did in life, all the way down to her exquisitely beautiful album covers,” Carrington said. “She leaves us with a supreme legacy, and for me her death has been a serious wake-up call on many fronts. I tell more people I love them. I am making time to go visit friends more often. I listen to others’ thoughts and feelings more attentively. And I also recognize the importance of reaching out to others when I am in need because our business is not easy on us in regard to physical, mental and spiritual health, especially for women.

“She honored the masters and sang the praises of her peers,” Carrington added. “She built bridges between genres and mediums and pushed her artistic self fiercely and fearlessly. She mentored many young musicians and paved an avenue for young women to play jazz, all while being a caring and responsible parent. I often wonder why she was so tired. Now I get it.”

Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science will appear again at DC Jazz Fest on Sunday, June 16  at  4:15 p.m. on the DC Wharf. Go to www.dcjazzfest.org for more information.

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