Geri Allen was born June 12, 1957, in Pontiac, Michigan. She received her early music education at the Cass Technical High School in Detroit and the Jazz Development Workshop, where her mentor was the trumpeter/teacher Marcus Belgrave. In 1979, Allen earned her bachelor's degree in jazz studies from Howard University in Washington, D.C. She studied under composer Thomas Kerr, and pianists Raymond Jackson, John Malachi, Fred Irby, Arthur Dawkins, and Komla Amoaku. After graduation, she moved to New York City, where she studied with the veteran bop pianist Kenny Barron. From there, at the behest of the jazz educator Nathan Davis, Allen attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning a master's degree in ethnomusicology. Returning to New York in 1982, she began touring with Mary Wilson and The Supremes.
Allen has worked with many of the greats of modern music, including Ornette Coleman, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Charles Lloyd. She cites her primary influences to be her parents, Mount Vernell Allen Jr, and Barbara Jean Allen, and her primary musical influences to be mentors Marcus Belgrave, Donald Walden, Betty Carter, pianists Herbie Hancock, Mary Lou Williams, Hank Jones, Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Bud Powell, and mentor Dr. Billy Taylor. Allen is an Associate Professor of Music and the Director of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
In the mid-1980s, Allen became a charter member of both the Black Rock Coalition and the Brooklyn M-Base movement, a collective including saxophonists Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson among others. Allen played on several of Coleman's albums, including his first, 1985's Motherland Pulse, providing the composition "The Glide Was in the Ride", a track listed on the New Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. She also was the original keyboardist of the band initially most associated with M-Base, the funk-oriented Steve Coleman and Five Elements.
Allen's own 1984 debut album as a leader, The Printmakers, with Anthony Cox and Andrew Cyrille, was recorded in Germany and the first album to be released by the newly founded German label Minor Music. She went on playing with AACM's Joseph Jarman and Frank Lowe and then she toured and recorded with altoist Oliver Lake. She released a solo piano album in 1985, Home Grown, followed by an album and a concert tour with the large ensemble project Open on All Sides in the Middle that featured vocalist Shahita Nurallah and veteran tap dancer Lloyd Story alongside Steve Coleman, Robin Eubanks and percussionist Mino Cinelu. Bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Tani Tabbal also joined Allen for her last recording for Minor Music, Twylight, released in 1989, again featuring vocals on two tracks, additional percussionists and herself also on synthesizer.
In 1988 came Etudes, a cooperative trio effort with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. Until 1990 several recordings of the trio that followed were released on different labels. Allen also played on the drummer's 1989 Monk in Motian, and was part of Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra Montreal concert in 1989. In 1995, she was the first recipient of Soul Train's Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year for Twenty-One, featuring Tony Williams and Ron Carter. She was also the first woman, and youngest person to receive the Danish "Jazz Par Prize." Allen continued to push the improvisational envelope with Sound Museum, a 1996 recording made under the leadership of Ornette Coleman. The Gathering followed in 1998. The Life of a Song was recorded with veterans Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Her 2010 album Flying Toward the Sound was rated one of the Best Of 2010 on NPR, Downbeat, All About Jazz, and the Village Voice's Jazz Critics' Poll that year. "Timeless Portraits and Dreams" featured NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter, opera icon George Shirley singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing", saxophonist and mentor Donald Walden, vocalist Carmen Lundy, and the Atlanta Jazz Chorus under the direction of composer/multi-reedist Dwight Andrews.
In 2006, Allen was commissioned to compose "For the Healing of the Nations", a Sacred Jazz Suite for Voices, written in tribute to the victims, survivors and their families of the 9/11 attacks. The suite was performed by Howard University's Afro-Blue Jazz Choir, under the direction of Connaitre Miller. Oliver Lake, Craig Harris, Andy Bey, Dwight Andrews, Mary Stallings, Carmen Lundy, Nneena Freelon, Jay Hoggard, and other jazz musicians also participated. The poetry was contributed by Sandra Turner-Barnes.
Allen took part in a documentary film titled Live Music, Community & Social Conscience (2007) while performing at the Frog Island Music Festival in Michigan. Allen contributed original music to the documentary film Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, directed by Lisa Gay Hamilton, which received a Peabody Award. Also, Allen contributed orchestrations to Andy Bey's "American Song" which was nominated for a Grammy Award. She was the recipient of a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship. Allen's composition "Refractions" was released in response to her Guggenheim Fellowship in Composition, as "Flying Towards The Sound", along with three short art films by film maker/photographer, Carrie Mae Weems, for Motema Music in 2010. Geri Allen & Timeline Live, her second recording for Motema, featured bassist Kenny Davis, drummer Kassa Overall and tap dancer and Maurice Chestnut was released simultaneously with Flying Toward The Sound.
Allen received the "African-American Classical Music Award" from the Women of the New Jersey Chapter of Spelman College, and also received "A Salute to African-American Women: Phenomenal Woman" from the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Epsilon chapter at the University of Michigan, in 2008. Allen received a nomination in 2011 for the NAACP Image Award for Best Jazz Album, Geri Allen & Timeline Live. She was also nominated for both The 10th Annual Independent Music Awards in 2011 under the Live Performance Album category, and for "Best Jazz Pianist" by the Jazz Journalists Association.
Allen performed in 2011 in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monument Unveiling Concert, A Theatrical & Musical Celebration Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. entitled "MLK: A Monumental Life," presented in Constitution Hall, by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
Allen previously served as an Associate Professor of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation at the School Of Music Theatre & Dance, at the University of Michigan. In July of 2012, she became a curator at the STONE in New York City. In 2013, Allen returned to her alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, to serve as an Associate Professor of Music and to replace her retired former mentor, Nathan Davis, as the Director of the Jazz Studies Program.
Gerri Allen passed away on Tuesday, June 27, 2017.
For additional information about Geri Allen's career and to view her complete Discography, visit her website here.