Obituaries

Geri Allen, 60, pianist who reconciled jazz’s far-flung styles

Ms. Allen (right) in 2012.
Chester Higgins Jr./New York Times/File
Ms. Allen (right) in 2012.

NEW YORK — Geri Allen, an influential pianist and educator whose dense but agile playing reconciled far-flung elements of the jazz tradition, died Tuesday at a hospital in Philadelphia. She was 60.

Her publicist, Maureen McFadden, said the cause was cancer.

Perhaps more than any other pianist, Ms. Allen’s style — harmonically refracted and rhythmically complex, but also fluid — formed a bridge between jazz’s halcyon midcentury period and its diffuse present.

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She accomplished this by holding some things constant: a farsighted approach to the piano, which she used both to guide and to goad her bandmates; an ability to toggle between artistic styles without warping her own sound; and a belief that jazz ought to interact with its kindred art forms across the African-American tradition.

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“The music of most African societies integrates all of the arts, particularly dance,” Ms. Allen told Marc Myers of the website JazzWax in 2012. “By doing this, the entire culture is embraced, not just music and musicians. The result is that audiences have a more vivid sense of music’s importance. The cultural embrace of music has been a big part of my reality and my art.”

Ms. Allen first came to prominence in the 1980s, when she moved to New York after receiving a master’s degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. She soon became a part of the loosely configured M-Base Collective, which united rhythms from across the African diaspora with a commitment to experimental improvising.

She also established a long association with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Paul Motian, both veterans of the jazz avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s, and played with drummer Tony Williams and bassist Ron Carter, former members of Miles Davis’s quintet.

She later became one of the first pianists since the 1950s to make a commercial recording with free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman.

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Ms. Allen was the rare jazz musician of her generation to have an academic background in musicology as well as in jazz performance. She went on to spend 10 years as an educator at the University of Michigan, becoming a sought-after mentor to young musicians, and in 2013 she returned to the University of Pittsburgh as the director of its jazz studies program.

In 2014, she helped found the All-Female Jazz Residency, a summer program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for young jazz musicians in their teens and twenties.

Ms. Allen’s academic training and her upbringing in Detroit helped guide her development. On “Twylight,” an album of original compositions released in 1989, she and a band of Detroit musicians used African percussion instruments and newfangled synthesizers. On “Grand River Crossings” (2013), Ms. Allen performed solo piano interpretations of Motown songs, vesting them with a shimmering breadth.

Geri Antoinette Allen was born in Pontiac, Mich., and grew up in Detroit. Her mother, Barbara Jean Allen, was a defense-contract administrator for the US government; her father, Mount Allen Jr., was a principal in the Detroit public schools.

Ms. Allen, who lived in Pittsburgh, leaves her father; her brother, Mount Allen III; two daughters, Laila and Barbara; and a son, Wallace. Her marriage to trumpeter Wallace Roney ended in divorce.

At Cass Technical High School in Detroit, she studied with Marcus Belgrave, the influential jazz trumpeter and educator. On graduating, she attended Howard University, where she became one of the first students in the university’s jazz studies program, under the direction of trumpeter Donald Byrd.

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After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Allen moved briefly to New York, then accepted an invitation to study at Pittsburgh, where she also worked under pianist Nathan Davis and the Ghanaian musicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia. For her master’s dissertation she wrote a musical analysis of the iconoclastic saxophonist, bass clarinetist and flutist Eric Dolphy.

‘The cultural embrace of music has been a big part of my reality and my art.’

Ms. Allen graduated in 1982 and moved back to New York, where she joined up with saxophonist Steve Coleman, a founder of the M-Base Collective.

He featured her on his debut album, “Motherland Pulse,” beginning a long association.

Her own debut, “The Printmakers,” a 1984 trio date with drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Anthony Cox, is a startling display of rhythmic and melodic mutability, as well as her inventiveness as a composer.

It was the beginning of a recording career that spanned about 20 albums as a leader, including dazzling solo piano records; collaborations with choruses and tap dancers; and an array of small-group albums that range from acoustic jazz to avant-funk.