‘Reminiscing Eminence’ pays tribute to Pitt jazz legend Geri Allen


Screenshot courtesy of Music at Pitt | Youtube

The Pitt department of music and jazz studies held a virtual seminar and performance this Friday to honor Geri Allen’s life and legacy.

By Beatrice McDermott, Staff Writer

Butterflies danced across the screen of the virtual jazz performance, accompanied by colorful bursts of flute and poetic speech in a tribute performance for jazz legend Geri Allen.

The department of music and jazz studies held a virtual seminar and performance last Friday to honor Allen’s life and legacy. Four renowned jazz musicians — including Pitt’s William S. Dietrich II Endowed Chair in Jazz Studies, Nicole Mitchell Gantt — discussed Allen’s lifelong career as a pianist and composer and performed pieces inspired by her work.

The event, “Reminiscing Eminence,” was part of the 50th Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert, a weeklong celebration of jazz and music education. The annual event offers jazz workshops and concerts. This year’s seminar focuses on the work of Nathan Davis and Geri Allen, both prior jazz studies directors.

According to NPR, Allen began playing the piano when she was 7 years old. She was one of the first students to receive a degree in jazz studies at Howard University. During her prestigious career, she played in jazz trios, toured the country, released more than a dozen albums and was named a Guggenheim Fellow. She passed away in 2017.

In an archival interview at the beginning of the seminar, Allen spoke about her decision to pursue musical scholarship at Pitt. Davis, the director of jazz studies at the time, recommended that she study at Pitt, but jazz drummer Art Blakey had also recently asked her to join his band.

“I was familiar with the work that Dr. Davis was doing from a periphery, but when he called to say that he wanted me to come — full scholarship and a teacher’s fellowship — to Pitt, it changed all my plans,” Allen said. “I had to make a really hard choice.”

As Allen explained in the interview, she chose to depart from the traditional path of jazz performance and earn her master’s degree in ethnomusicology, or the study of music as it relates to culture, at Pitt. After Davis retired, she became director of the jazz studies program.

Gantt led the group of four musicians in discussion, asking them to explain the progression of their tribute pieces in the “Reminiscing Eminence” concert and their connection to Allen. Gantt performed “Black Gold (for Geri Allen)” on the flute, which she described as a “love poem” to Allen’s work.

“We are making work that was inspired by Geri Allen, who has touched all of our lives in so many amazing ways — artistically, and as friends and spiritually,” Gantt said. “I’m really loving the idea of having a conversation.”
Dwayne Dolphin, a 57-year-old Pittsburgh native and bass player, spoke about his experience with Allen as a mentor. Dolphin, who met Allen at the start of his music career, said she had a profound impact on his style, providing him with assistance and inspiration.

“I was 16 years old when I met her, and I just latched on and drove her crazy,” Dolphin said, jokingly. “She was so different than every other musician I’ve ever met, including the masters that were around here — because she talked different, she thought different.”

Dolphin explained the thought process behind his tribute performance, “Erica,” a bass piece that echoes a short tune Allen used to play, and how it drew from years of watching Allen develop and transform as a musician.

“My journey was a little different from maybe everybody else’s, because I’ve seen her change. She would just grow and grow, in this direction and that direction,” Dolphin said. “Whatever she came in contact with really affected her musically. She was a beautiful sponge.”

Terri Lyne Carrington performed an arrangement of “Your Pure Soul” by Allen on the drums. Carrington is a 55-year-old three-time Grammy Award-winning drummer who frequently collaborated with Allen. The two released the acclaimed recording “Perfection” together in 2015, along with saxophone player David Murray.

“We did a trio together called ACS. That was really amazing. So many good memories of that trio,” Carrington said. “We all felt like we could let our guard down, and just, you know, have a different kind of camaraderie on stage together.”

Carrington also discussed the steps she is taking to preserve Allen’s legacy and ensure that future generations of musicians can access her compositions. She’s currently working with the Berklee College of Music to make Allen’s work more accessible.

“We at Berklee are trying to create a Geri Allen reading room, where we will have as much [sheet music] as possible there, to be requested,” Carrington said. “That’s a ways away because of the pandemic.”

Vijay Iyer, a 49-year-old acclaimed pianist, performed the piece “Everlasting (for Geri Allen).” He said the piece was stuck in his head for a week and it took several takes to create a song true to Allen’s spirit. Iyer also recalled watching one of Allen’s performances with an ensemble in Europe.

“I was just thinking about what [she] pulled off with that group, and with that music — which on a pretty large stage is a huge opportunity,” Iyer said. “She really stretched. It was incredible to witness. She was fearless.”

Dolphin added his own memories of the performance, speaking about Allen’s powerful presence on stage and her creative conducting techniques.

“She would single out two people to play together during a piece. I’ll never forget — she singled me out and Gary Thomas. And I said, ‘Wow, I love the way he plays. It blew me away.’ And she knew that,” Dolphin said. “I had a great time.”