At her first Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert as its director, pianist Geri Allen opened the 2013 program with a composition by her predecessor, Dr. Nathan Davis. “If” had a low-down swampy groove, closer to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album than the hard-bop tunes that often opened the concerts in the 42 years prior. It was clear: There was a new sheriff in town.
Much like everything she did, Geri Antoinette Allen knew history and respected it. But she wasn’t afraid to help it evolve. That night, with a band that, among others, included two drummers, a tap dancer and a vocalist, she gave the Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert a strong push.
Allen passed away on June 27, at age 60. According to her manager, the cause was cancer. To fans like this writer, the news was sudden, coming only a day after Motéma Music, her record label, posted on Facebook that Allen was “gravely ill.”
The pianist leaves behind a legacy that acknowledged her Detroit roots, and contained diverse original works under her own name, as a support player, and in collaborative groups with bassist Esperanza Spalding, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and saxophonist David Murray. Significantly, she recorded two albums with Ornette Coleman in 1996, making her one of the few pianists to master the saxophonist’s style, a challenge for any keyboardist.
The international jazz community has suffered a loss with Allen’s passing. In some ways, Allen’s death also has a great impact on Pittsburgh’s music scene. Trying to fill her shoes is going to be a challenge. But for the moment, the best thing to do is listen to Allen’s music and give thanks for the time she was with us.