In a 2010 interview with Jazztimes magazine’s Shaun Brady, pianist Geri Allen said: “We have to be students of life and be very careful as we move through it. There’s always some kind of unexpected moment that happens each and every day, and you have to adjust. Music is like that. You can’t ever take it for granted.”
Brady revisits the quote in the upcoming edition of the magazine’s Jazz Education Guide in a piece reflecting on the pianist’s legacy. Allen died June 27, at age 60, after a battle with cancer. The Detroit native received a master’s degree in ethnomusicology in the 1980s from the University of Pittsburgh. A prolific composer, performer and instructor, she had a well-established career before returning to her alma mater in 2012 to serve as director of jazz studies, succedding her mentor, Nathan Davis.
The annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert has been a tradition for more than four decades, bringing in renowned musicians for a week of lectures and events, concluding with a blow-out concert at the Carnegie Music Hall. This year’s concert takes on a solemn note, serving as a salute to Allen, who brought new blood to the tradition.
Trombonist/composer George Lewis came to Pitt in 2016 for a series of concerts that included one in which he and Allen performed, via interactive computer software, with musicians in California. The pair continued discussing possible collaborations in the future.
“She was taking the jazz studies program at Pitt in directions that were unimaginably great,” Lewis said via email back in June, “and she could do this because of her extremely open mind and her ability to understand and support diverse viewpoints, which was also why she was able to perform with the widest range of creative people. She was a creative musician of the very highest order, and our loss is incalculable.”
Tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who comes to town for the Pitt Jazz Seminar, remembers Allen as a performer ready to both welcome and push musicians. “The music was always challenging, unique and creative,” he says of her music. “There was a love in there, too. She made you feel engaged and connected. And she did it all without words. It was all done with music.”
Coltrane says Allen was, arguably, “more modest than she ever needed to be. She was a shy person, in many ways. It was a quiet strength. It often reminded me of my mother, her demeanor as well,” he says. “Obviously with both of them being from Detroit, and being followers of [pianists] Bud Powell, Barry Harris, there were a lot of things in Geri’s playing that reminded me of my mother’s playing.”
His mother is the late pianist Alice Coltrane and his father is the late tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. The latter, one of the most revered jazz musicians of all time, died when Ravi was 2, so he never got to know him. (Alice died in 2007.) Might Coltrane be able to listen to his father on a few different levels, as a parent as well as a musical peer? He pauses thoughtfully while considering this idea. “It’s hard to articulate it. No one’s ever put it to me that way before,” he admits. “There are times that I can separate my father from John Coltrane. And sometimes those two entities kind of meld and overlap, and oftentimes, I’m admiring this incredible, creative voice. It was interesting to have that duality between the father and the musician.”
One aspect of the elder Coltrane’s career was his constant drive to move forward stylistically, never resting on a current breakthrough. His son says that when he teaches, he tries to impress that idea on young musicians. “That potential is in all of us. [My father] made that clear in that 10-year span, being a leader from 1957 to when he passed away in 1967,” Coltrane says. “The amount of growth and change in that 10-year period — it’s mind-blowing, you know? He trusted his intuition and allowed that to take him forward.”
Technique can be taught, he says, but creativity is something altogether different. “That’s more like a muscle that has to be trained. Some people actually use it in a very deep and profound way — like John Coltrane. But for the rest of us, it’s something that we have to be aware of, and we should not fear tapping into it. And then we need to be courageous and patient enough to really try and cultivate it. If you start kind of falling back on your intuition more often, it actually starts to improve.
When talking about Allen’s death, Coltrane admits that he hasn’t fully accepted the idea that the pianist is no longer with us. “I almost wish that we could have had at least one moment to say, ‘Geri, thank you. We love you and thank you for everything you’ve done in music, and for all the music that you put in to the world.’”
That opportunity, in a sense, will happen this week. In addition to Coltrane, Saturday’s concert includes Kenny Davis (bass), Maurice Chestnut (tap dancer), Nicholas Payton (trumpet, piano), Tia Fuller (saxophone), Stefon Harris (vibraphone), Kassa Overall & Victor Lewis (drums) and Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar). Actress S. Epatha Merkerson serves as host.