By Hakim Abdul-Ali
Geri Allen was an African-American jazz pianist and composer who died in 2017 at the age of 60. She was renowned monarch in the fields of music and education.
In her honor, the Spoleto Festival USA Wells Fargo Jazz Series presented a special tribute to her life and legacy by presenting a Geri Allen Tribute Quintet program, which was held on May 30, 2019. The event took place on a warm, slightly humid night at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard.
This celebrated quintet, who gathered in the Lowcountry to performed this musical extravaganza in her honor, were drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Robert Hurst, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. They came to Charleston to celebrate the life of a true jazz queen, and did exactly that.
This much-deserved activity surrounding recognizing Geri Allen for who and what she was about was spearheaded by Ms. Carrington, who according to advance press notices, had performed for more than thirty years with Geri Allen. It’s to be noted that Ms. Allen, as an unquestioned musical head of state performer over the decades, played with the likes of Oliver Lake, Betty Carter, Charles Lloyd, Buddy Collette, Steve Coleman, Franco Ambrosetti, Greg Osby, Ornette Coleman and Wallace Rodney, just to name a few of the stellar musicians who she had performed with over the span of her majestic career.
Geri Allen was married to Mr. Rodney in 1995; the marriage eventually ended in divorce. From that union, they had one son and two daughters.
The musical program began with pianist Craig Taborn playing Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” followed by the trio of Carrington, Taborn and Hurst playing “LWB’s House” and “Place of Power.” After these tunes the trio became a quartet with jazz royalty John and Alice Coltrane’s son, Ravi, joining the previous trio configuration.
From there the newly morphed quartet took off with “Feed the Fire,” the mystifying “Swamini,” “Unconditional Love,” “Running as Fast You Can,” “Soul Heir” and the resounding “Your Pure Self.” Dancer Maurice Chestnut then entered the grouping making it the announced quintet and they performed, at various united intervals, “The Dancer” “Celebration of All Life” and “Our Lady,” with a rousing “Dream Time” number serving as a grand encore to magnificent evening in celebrating an American jazz female icon, which is what Geri Allen most certainly was.
Geri Allen was a bonafide sovereign musical empress, who was recognized as a genius musician, acknowledged composer and as an academic scholar. Her credentials included being a graduate of Howard University’s Jazz Studies Program in 1979. She later received her master’s degree in ethnomusicology in 1982 from the University of Pittsburgh.
Ms. Allen was also awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She was an Associate Professor of Music and the Director of the Jazz Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, a position she assumed in 2013.
Her bio states that this celebrated scholar and musician died on June 27, 2017, in Philadelphia, from cancer, just weeks after birthday. She may physically not be present, but her life’s achievements and her winning spirit does. Long live the memory of a jazz queen named Geri Allen.