Members of the Pitt community joined jazz fans the world over this week in mourning the death of acclaimed pianist and composer Geri Allen, the director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies program.
An influential jazz pianist who brought the same passion for playing to her role as educator, Allen succumbed to cancer the afternoon of June 27 at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Eastern Regional Medical Center in Philadelphia. She was 60.
Allen headed up the Pitt Jazz Studies program beginning in 2014, when she officially joined the faculty after coordinating the fall 2013 Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert. She took the reins after the founding director of the program, Nathan Davis, retired. Allen revamped the program with additional faculty and outstanding staff and students, according to Deane Root, professor and music department chair.
“Geri also quickly took a role across campus in many capacities, including diversity initiatives, the Year of the Humanities, outreach programs, the development of resources and archives and collaboration with other institutions,” said Root.
He said when she took a leave from teaching and service at the University last fall to focus on her treatment, she was worried she’d have to give up her creative activities.
“Throughout her illness, she continued to take an active role in mentoring her graduate students and worked valiantly to fulfill her contracted performances, which she said sustained her spirit and her reason for living,” he said.
Allen was born in 1957 in Pontiac, Michigan, and raised in Detroit. The piano became her instrument at age 7, and by the time she graduated from Cass Technical High School, she was a protégé of the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, with whom she continued to collaborate over the years. She was one of the first students to complete a jazz studies degree at Howard University, and then, at the urging of Davis, earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Pitt in 1982.
Kenneth Powell, adjunct saxophone instructor at Pitt, was in the ethnomusicology program at the same time and immediately hit it off with Allen.
“We performed together in a group called The Sounds of Togetherness,” he said. “Geri was a kind, passionate and personable individual, and those qualities were reflected in her music.”
Allen made a name for herself in New York City’s jazz clubs and in other venues across the country beginning in the 1980s. She performed and collaborated with Ornette Coleman, Ravi Coltrane, Betty Carter, Billy Taylor, fellow Cass Tech alum and bassist Ron Carter and many others. More recently, she toured with bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington in the ACS Trio.
She has been described by more than one of her peers as “the female Herbie Hancock on the piano.” Hancock was just one of many musicians who phoned to say goodbye to Allen in her final days, Root said.
In 1995, Allen was the first recipient of Soul Train’s Lady of Soul Award for jazz album of the year for “Twenty-One.” The following year, she became the first woman and youngest person to win the Danish JAZZPAR Prize. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2008, the same year she won a Distinguished Alumni Award from Howard.
She was co-producer of the recently released three-CD set “The Complete Concert by the Sea,” an expanded version of the best-known album by Pittsburgh jazz great Erroll Garner. In 2016, it was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
Allen also was the guiding force in securing the donation of the Erroll Garner Archive for Pitt’s University Library System.
“Her love and knowledge of Pittsburgh’s jazz legends and her international acclaim as a musician, along with her determination to enhance resources for Pitt students, led to a continuing relationship with the donor,” said Root.
“When you look back at women in jazz,” said former classmate Powell, “she’s going to be among the greatest ever. The synergy of her creativity and technical proficiency made her a powerful force that will be acknowledged for years to come.”
Allen is survived by her father, a brother and three children. Information about services will be provided in this story when available.