Geri Allen, a musically adventurous jazz pianist and bandleader who performed with the leading musicians of her time, from Ornette Coleman to Wayne Shorter, and who furthered the careers of other women in jazz, died June 27 at a hospital in Philadelphia. She was 60.
The cause was cancer. Her death was announced by the University of Pittsburgh, where she directed the jazz studies program.
In a career spanning more than 35 years, Ms. Allen was known for her eclectic approach to music, exploring the traditions of jazz and reaching into some of its more arcane byways. She portrayed pianist Mary Lou Williams in the 1996 Robert Altman film “Kansas City,” set in the 1930s, but she also dipped into a variety of other styles, from the Motown music of her childhood home town Detroit to electronic music and classical works.
“I like to look at the piano as a drum,” she said in a 1992 interview with the Contemporary Musicians reference guide, “as 88 drums with pitch. Rhythm is the core of my music.”
Ms. Allen was considered one of the leading pianists of her generation and, as Los Angeles Times critic Don Heckman wrote in 2006, “long overdue for the sort of recognition that accrues for the top level of jazz performers.”
In the 1980s, Ms. Allen toured with Mary Wilson, a onetime member of the Supremes from whom she said she borrowed fashion ideas. A decade later, Ms. Allen accompanied another singer from Detroit, jazz vocalist Betty Carter, and performed on Carter’s Grammy Award-winning album “Droppin’ Things.”
Ms. Allen released more than 20 albums as a bandleader, many of which featured her own compositions, and she collaborated on recordings with rock guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour and jazz masters including bassists Ron Carter, Charlie Haden and Dave Holland, and drummers Paul Motian and Jimmy Cobb.
In 1996 she became the first acoustic pianist in almost 40 years to record with Coleman, the innovative saxophonist. Their work was documented on two albums, “Sound Museum: Hidden Man” and “Sound Museum: Three Women.”
“Why can’t I explore the whole universe of music that’s available to me?” Ms. Allen told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “There’s a point of view that suggests that you can do something much better if you focus on one thing, but it’s my nature to be curious, and to go back and forth between different contexts, such as playing solo, trio and large groups, or using electronic stuff.”
Ms. Allen also found time to write symphonic works, develop theatrical projects and to become a prominent jazz educator, first at her alma mater, Howard University, and later at the University of Michigan and the University of Pittsburgh.
Throughout her career, Ms. Allen helped rediscover the historical role of women in jazz. Ms. Allen recorded Williams’s “Zodiac Suite” and often appeared at what is now the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center. She also performed the music of Lil Hardin Armstrong, who was the pianist on the early recordings of her husband, trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
“There is a really strong legacy of great female piano players, and women have played really important parts in the history of the music,” Ms. Allen told the British newspaper the Independent in 1998. “The issue of Lil Hardin in Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five is an important one. She was the first piano player in the first major group in jazz, and that’s a big hole left undiscovered.”
“If you want to be true to tradition, you must find your own voice,” Ms. Allen told Newsday in 1992. “It isn’t just in playing on what’s already there. If you come to this music on its own terms, then you have to come to it on your own terms.”
Geri Antoinette Allen was born June 12, 1957, in Pontiac, Mich., and grew up in Detroit. Her father was a school principal, and her mother worked as a contracts administrator with the federal government.
Her parents often played jazz and classical records at home, and Ms. Allen began studying the piano at age 7. She went to Cass Tech, a Detroit high school that produced many other talented musicians, and studied under trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.
In 1979, Ms. Allen became one of the first graduates of Howard’s jazz studies program, and she received a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982.
Among other projects, she collaborated on musical plays with actress and director S. Epatha Merkerson and writer Farah Jasmine Griffin. She also wrote musical tributes honoring civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Her marriage to trumpeter Wallace Roney ended in divorce. Survivors include three children; her father; and a brother.
“What I’m trying to access with these 88 keys,” Ms. Allen said in 1992, “is something very individual, very much myself, in the ways that the masters have illustrated for us. And that takes a certain kind of confidence, a humble confidence.”
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