Geri Allen Passes at 60

Pianist and jazz educator Geri Allen passed on June 27 in Philadelphia after a struggle with cancer. Since 2013 she had been the Jazz Studies Director at the University of Pittsburgh, where she moved after ten years at the University of Michigan.

Allen was born in Pontiac, but grew up in Detroit where she attended Cass Tech. She was one of the protégés of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, one of Detroit’s most well-known jazz griots, who she met at Cass while in a jazz ensemble established by one of her teachers Marilyn Jones (flutist and choral director). At the time, Belgrave was Artist-in-Residence at the school. Allen testified to the Kresge Foundation that Belgrave “recognized, encouraged, and nurtured my talent…introducing me to the great musicians of Detroit, and a rich culture which loves and honors music and musicians.”

She left Detroit to study at Howard University in its newly established jazz studies program and later at the University of Pittsburgh where she received an M.A. in musicology in 1982. Her thesis was on Eric Dolphy, a pioneer saxophonist of the avant garde. After a move to New York she soon began recording and attracted favorable critical attention; her first records were with adventurous altoist Steve Coleman.

In 1984 she started her own recording career with The Printmakers, the first of nine trio albums. Three of these trio albums with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian stand out, including one recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1990. Her trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette was also a standout on its own and behind vocalist Betty Carter. She often featured fellow Detroiters, particularly Marcus Belgrave, on her recording sessions, including Grand River Crossings: Motown and Motor City Inspirations in 2013. Allen was the first woman to receive the coveted Danish Jazzpar Prize.

We have lost the most brilliant pianist and composer to come out of Detroit in the last four decades.