Geri Allen Interview
File 1 (Off-mic discussion, direction)
Interviewer: Okay. This is Geri Allen at AAMI. July 22nd, 2014. Okay, first of all, tell a little bit about yourself as a musician. How did you come to be a musician; where did that impulse come from and how did you develop from the time you were a child?
File 1 – 00:00:39 Geri Allen: Well, I, I would say that my, may parents, uh, have had a great deal to do with, uh, my love for music. My dad still a huge fan, a fan of jazz and always played, you know, Charlie Parker’s music and Sarah Vaughan, and, um, Ellington, and Strayhorn, and all of this great music would be playing in the house all the time.
File 1 – 00:01:08 Geri Allen: So, even before I was born, I’m sure I heard that music. You know, in my mom’s womb. And, um, I think, uh, their appreciation for the arts and their, you know, my dad is an educator, public schools, for, he taught at public schools for like thirty-five, forty years. And so I think they ... he understood, as my mom did, um, how the arts can really impact, uh, and benefit young people.
File 1 – 00:01:39 Geri Allen: So they really encouraged that for both my brother and I growing up. So I would say hearing that music and then growing up, uh, hearing Motown music and going to a high school, um, to arts high school, that really, I think, was the breakthrough there, being around other people my age that were really good. (Laughs)
File 1 – 00:02:04 Geri Allen: And, uh, really headed toward careers in, in the arts and music. Um. I think that was inspiring, hearing other kids that could play that well. Um. And there were really great public school teachers, uh. I just lost one of my mentors, uh, Marilyn Jones, who was a peer of Donald Byrd’s, the great trumpet player. They all went to school together, George Shirley, a great opera singer.
File 1 – 00:02:32 Geri Allen: And they were all friends. Um. So I, I do feel that that environment of, uh, you know, she, as I mentioned, was a friend of Donald Byrd’s and she ran the Jazz Ensemble. And having access to that kind of legacy for us, as students, was also a big, um, just an amazing experience.
File 1 – 00:02:57 Geri Allen: I met Marcus Belgrave there, through the Detroit Public Schools, uh. She invited him in as an artist in residence. And, so that idea of the public schools reaching out to the professional musicians in, in Detroit, to bring them in and to have the, the young people have access to those ... that, that level of artistry, uh, at, at our early age, uh, I thought was ... that was key as well.
File 1 Ends
Interviewer: So, just say again, where you were born and raised. (Allen Affirms) And that your family supported ... your parents were very supportive ... (Allen Affirms)
File 2 – 00:00:11 Geri Allen: Well, I actually was born in Pontiac, Michigan, uh, the home of the Jones brothers. (Laughs) Um. But I was raised in Detroit. And, um, my father, Mount Vernell Allen, Jr., has always been fan of jazz and, uh, we heard the music in the house all the time as, as little kids.
File 2 – 00:00:35 Geri Allen: And, um, I’m sure that that affected my, um, you know, being marinating (Laughing), marinating with the music all those years. Uh. And by the time I got to high school, I met other young people in my age group that were really very gifted and advanced. And, um, you could see that they were on a track to professional careers as musicians.
File 2 – 00:01:01 Geri Allen: And I think that really kind of woke me up and, uh, it helped to focus what it was that I really wanted to do, which was to be a jazz musician.
Interviewer: You said you were exposed to Motown and everything, but, yet, jazz sort of kind of grabbed you. How is that jazz and R&B, Motown sound ... why jazz?
File 2 – 00:01:30 Geri Allen: Well, actually, I, I did play with the Supremes for a while. (Laughs) I played with, uh, Mary Wilson, who, um, you know, there’s a whole Detroit legacy of those, uh, artists. But a lot of the jazz musicians were the ones that made those hits.
File 2 – 00:01:46 Geri Allen: So you heard, you know, those records with those great beats, “Pistol Allen,” and, you know, uh, Beans Bowles, and these really, uh, important jazz musicians from the Detroit area were responsible, the Funk Brothers, you know, for, for the sound.
File 2 – 00:02:02 Geri Allen: So there was always an intergration, I think, like an open-mindedness, uh, although it was a staunch be-bop, uh, rigorous, you know, um, you know, you, you had to work hard, uh, to be on the bandstand with those people. And they, uh, you know, they had high expectations of anybody that, you know, would join them on the bandstand.
File 2 – 00:02:26 Geri Allen: But there was also an open-mindedness about good music. And that good music, uh, would cross genre. It could be, you know, these classical musicians would be a part of those sessions, jazz musicians, Gospel musicians. So that part of it was a great experience for me, that, you know, to, to really be, um, to maintain a career, uh, a big part of what we were encouraged to do by, by people like Marcus Belgrave and, um, Harold McKinney, those musicians who were, uh, really important pillars of the scene, was, you know, to be versatile.
File 2 – 00:03:05 Geri Allen: And, uh, to, to be open and creative.
Interviewer: I wonder, with your story, your parents played jazz around the house, so you were exposed to it. How important is the education that you got? What might have transpired had you not had that opportunity to be educated that way?
File 2 – 00:03:30 Geri Allen: You’re right. I mean the idea of not having had, um, the Detroit Public Schools, Cass Tech, in particular, um, in terms of my experience, as a place to grow and be nurtured as a young musician, I can’t, I can’t imagine what that would have meant, not to have that.
File 2 – 00:03:51 Geri Allen: Um. You were talking about (Coughs) ... this was a, a story on Peter Barnard, from the Detroit area, and he, um, he was mentioning how, at that time, you could come out of high school and, uh, you know, immediately those people went straight into, first, you know, first-tier careers, straight out of high school.
File 2 – 00:04:16 Geri Allen: So they were getting a foundation that would take them right into professional careers. Uh. And I think that that is an important legacy that these schools should be celebrated for. And, uh, that we should continue to, you know, continue to fight for that, for, for the next generations of, uh, young people.
Interviewer: Reminds me of Westinghouse High School here. (Allen Affirms) If Carl McVicker hadn’t been running that program, what would have happened to a lot of those young musicians.
File 2 – 00:04:50 Geri Allen: Yeah. And that’s an amazing legacy. You’re talking about the, the ... you know, the, the legacy of all those great musicians that came out of that institution. And, you know, public schools, um, are there for everybody. You know, it’s a place where, uh, everyone has a fair opportunity to, you know, have access.
File 2 – 00:05:11 Geri Allen: And it’s key. Uh. And I agree with you. As we, uh, continue to develop our program at Pitt, that’s one of the, uh, places we’re looking at to continue to try to support that, um, you know, by having our students maybe involved more and on the ground.
File 2 – 00:05:31 Geri Allen: And this really is helpful for them, uh, just as helpful as it is for the, the young people that, you know, they will hopefully be having access to.
Interviewer: Tell me a bit more about that. Explain it ... you have college students and they go to the high schools?
File 2 – 00:05:49 Geri Allen: Well, right now, this is something we’re talking about doing. I mean, obviously, you know, we have our Pitt Jazz Seminar that, uh, Dr. Nathan Davis established some forty-three years ago, where outreach has built into that week of, you know, having these international musicians come in.
File 2 – 00:06:09 Geri Allen: And Nelson Harrison just showed me a photograph of, uh, one of those moments from many, many years ago, where Max Roach, you know, was one of the artists that was, uh, there.
File 2 – 00:06:19 Geri Allen: But, through the years, uh, that program allowed for, you know, high school students and, um, you know, the veterans in the area, different, um, groups to have access to these musicians who would come in this once a year.
File 2 – 00:06:36 Geri Allen: And I think it’s an ... a very important, um, kind of tradition to continue and to maybe develop more in the sense that we have, uh, the possibility of working with, uh, students year-round. That, that’s something I would like to see, uh, you know, as I start the transition and develop the program.
Interviewer: It seems that the sustainability of that education is really important ... once a year is exciting and inspirational for that week but the students need more on a regular basis.
File 2 – 00:07:15 Geri Allen: Yeah. It’s, it’s really important. I mean this, uh, the seminar is like a, like a kind of our core, um, how we ... how we’ve been sharing through the years with the community. But I think, um, that it’s important with the way things are, in terms of our, our schools and how can we find ways to be, as you ... the word you used, even more sustainable and to have that connection going on, uh, year-round.
File 2 – 00:07:43 Geri Allen: So this is something I’m dreaming about and trying to put together in terms of how to, to move forward. Certainly, our students are going to be a big part of that experience, along with our faculty.
Interviewer: So tell me how does a girl from Pontiac get to Pittsburgh ... ?
File 2 – 00:08:05 Geri Allen: Well, um, again, Nathan Davis was the, you know, the, the person that invited me to come here as a student. Um I was on my way to New York. Actually, I was already there. And I was, you know, I studied at Howard University and I completed my degree.
File 2 – 00:08:25 Geri Allen: And I was really, uh, really excited to jump into the, you know, as many musicians have done before, you know, you pave you, uh, pave your way to New York City and try to make ends meet. (Laughs)
File 2 – 00:08:39 Geri Allen: Pull things together and, hopefully, uh, have a possibility of a real career. And, um, I was there, uh, studying with Kenny Baron at the time, through an NEA grant, which is another ... such, such an important, you know, institution that, that has continued to, um, you know, feed the possibility of creative work, you know, throughout the country in so many different levels.
File 2 – 00:09:08 Geri Allen: But, um, that gave me the opportunity to go to New York and study with Kenny Barron, who was very generous and, um ... So I was there, kind of trying to figure it all out, when I got a call from, um, Nathan Davis, who I had met, at Howard, as a matter of fact, through, um, one of his prior students, um, “Kumalam Owaku” (Spelling!), a wonderful master drummer from Ghana, who was teaching at Howard at the time and he was talking about, um, what a great ex, experience he had had at Pitt.
File 2 – 00:09:46 Geri Allen: So I, I was familiar with the work that, uh, Dr. Davis was doing from a kind of a periphery. But when he called to say that, um, he wanted to invite me to come, uh, on a full scholarship, um, and a teacher’s fellowship, to come to Pitt, it changed all my plans. And gave me some stability and an opportunity to, uh, to develop my craft, uh, for another four years, four or five years, here in Pittsburgh.
Interviewer: Was it a difficult decision to leave New York?
File 2 – 00:10:24 Geri Allen: Not at all. (Laughs) It was not a difficult decision to leave at all. You know, I understood the, the, um, the value of what he was offering and the opportunity that, uh, that he was offering me. And I was very grateful for it. I ... and I still am very grateful, um, for the opportunity that has directed my career, uh, in, in very meaningful ways, having that experience and having spent that time here.
Interviewer: How did you find Pittsburgh when you get here? Did you notice any similarities between Detroit and Pittsburgh? How did you feel about when you first touched down in Pittsburgh ... ?
File 2 – 00:11:17 Geri Allen: Well, you know, I was very, very fortunate to come in contact with, you know, James Johnston was here ... was a student here, Jothan Callins, there were a number of wonderful jazz students, Kenny, uh, Powell. We were all in the program together. And, uh, I remember young Dwayne Dolphin and, um, of course, Nelson and Roger Humphries. I can go through a, a whole list of really, um, amazing musicians that were here.
File 2 – 00:11:52 Geri Allen: And the scene was always very vibrant, you know? And people were playing music and the opportunity to grow as a musician was, as I mentioned, very ripe. So, for me, it was a great, uh, place to be. You know, to come to have a chance to really develop myself as a player, which I still, uh, was wanting to do and wanting to figure out what that meant.
File 2 – 00:12:22 Geri Allen: Um. And then, also, the scholarly part of it, to be here with Nathan, uh, as, as a, you know, as a teacher and someone directing me in terms of what does that, what does that mean, to be a scholar in this area of jazz.
File 2 – 00:12:37 Geri Allen: Uh. It was a great place to be. And, and a great, um, just on many, many ... many different levels, just a great place to be.
Interviewer: It might have been the only place you could have done that? How many other places could you ...
(Pause/Technical/”Sit up straighter”)
Interviewer: Where else could you have gone to get that experience?
File 2 – 00:13:24 Geri Allen: Well, the, the Pittsburgh experience is one of a kind. And it, it ... I remember, um, meeting Art Blakey around that time. And he asked me to join the band. And I thought, “Wow!” (Laughs) “How many times is this going to happen?” You know, where you have, um, an icon of that magnitude.
File 2 – 00:13:46 Geri Allen: And I, I had to tell him that, you know, Nathan Davis had asked me to come to Pittsburgh to study here and, um, I had to make a really hard choice. Am I going to follow that path, uh, you know, that, you know, I had been dreaming of in terms of, you know, the playing with an Art Blakey. Uh. Playing with musicians of that, um, magnitude, or am I going to make this, um, probably this opportunity as a, you know, as a scholar, uh, and look at those possibilities of what that would mean in terms of my future and being able to document the music, and, um ... So it was a really hard, you know, it was a hard choice.
File 2 – 00:14:36 Geri Allen: And I go back sometimes and I relive that moment and I think about it. You know, and I thought, you know, I’m really grateful to have had, um, a chance to, uh, to develop myself here at Pitt and to have this, uh, now, you know, if I look at where I am today and the ... where the full circle and where it’s come, uh, it’s amazing, you know, opportunity.
File 2 – 00:15:04 Geri Allen: At the same time, I’m also looking at Nathan and he talked about, uh, how Art Blakey introduced him to the, uh, the Pittsburgh community so, so many years ago. I think he said he was playing with him at the Crawford Grill at the time. And, you know, you make your choices and you, you make those decisions. And I, I feel like, uh, really resolved in that, that I made a good choice to be here.
Interviewer: Tell me a bit about the NEA Grant and if you could just say “National Endowment for the Arts.” (Allen Affirms)
Interviewer: The jazz scene, do you have any experiences at the Crawford Grill ... did you go to those places as a student?
File 2 – 00:17:27 Geri Allen: Oh, yeah. I, I frequented all of the different places on the scene that were, you know, were the jazz, you know, where people were playing jazz, where, um ... and Pittsburgh has always been vibrant, even, you know, (Excuse Me) ... I always felt that I was getting, you know, the best training on the ground here because the musicians, there was a, um, a camaraderie and a, and a kind of nurturing friendliness about it.
File 2 – 00:17:59 Geri Allen: At the same time, it was like a very rigorous experience, you know? And I, I just played with Roger, um, some months ago. And I’m just so amazed at, uh, the, you know, just seeing him play and hearing him again, uh, after all these years, and coming back and forth from New York and, you know, playing with many of the great drummers that are there, and how, just Roger is just the best of the best.
File 2 – 00:18:30 Geri Allen: You know what I’m saying? I mean it’s ... his, uh, he’s just amazing, an amazing musician. And I had the opportunity to play with him, you know, as a, a young person coming up here.
File 2 – 00:19:02 (File 2 Ends)
Interviewer: When did you first encounter the music of Mary Lou Williams? Use her name ...
File 3 – 00:00:11 Geri Allen: Right. (Coughs) Well. Um. As a student at Pitt, (Phone/Bell Rings)
File 3 Ends
File 4 – 00:00:07 Geri Allen: ... just the level of the musicianship was very challenging. And, um, rigorous. (Interviewer Affirms) I think that’s the thing I wanted to get across, too, (Interviewer Affirms) that, uh, that (Coughs) ...
Interviewer: ... the quality of ... and even Dwayne told me, that you can always come home and play with (Allen Affirms) with really good people. (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:00:27 Geri Allen: Yeah. That’s it.
Interviewer: You come off the road and maybe stay home for a while ... you can still play with really good people. (Allen Affirms)
(Off-mic discussion, Humphries)
File 4 – 00:00:47 Geri Allen: Yeah. One of the greats of all time, he truly is.
Interviewer: ... such a nice man, too ...
File 4 – 00:00:52 Geri Allen: A really nice man.
Interviewer: Tell me about the musicianship in Pittsburgh ...
File 4 – 00:01:25 Geri Allen: Yeah. It was just always, uh, a, a very fun and rigorous experience, playing here with the musicians. Such ... and amazing level of, uh, artistry here. So, for me, that was a big part of my education at Pitt, just having a chance to play with, you know, um, the Roger Humphries, of, you know, the whole ... you really don’t see or hear drummers of that caliber, you know, um, anywhere.
File 4 – 00:01:58 Geri Allen: I mean you have, uh, great drummers in New York and he’s right there with, you know, the, the ones who have made, you know, history, in terms of the music. So, um, I just actually went to Horace Silver’s memorial and, um, you know, Roger’s, the contribution that he made as a part of that band with Horace Silver, you know, is, it’s a legendary ... it’s a place in history that, um, you know, that we all, um, you know, have to acknowledge and, um, be grateful for.
Interviewer: Did you realize about the tradition here before you accepted Nathan’s offer ... did you know about all these great people that played here?
File 4 – 00:03:00 Geri Allen: Well, you know, I, I knew about the, you know, the history of many of them. But it became really clear to me once I, uh, spent more time here, how Pittsburgh really played such a crit, critical part in the, the overall, um, history of this music.
File 4 – 00:03:21 Geri Allen: And, uh, from the very early, uh, periods, you know, through, through today. So, certainly, um that was a big part of the research I did while I was here. And I started to, um, research Mary Lou Williams’s, uh, work and her career as a student. So that kind of was, was the beginning of, uh, the, the many years of time I’ve spent with her, uh, and the inspiration that she has been to me throughout my career. It started here in Pittsburgh.
Interviewer: Tell me what it was about Mary Lou as a person and as an artist that sort of drew you in to do this research on her ... ?
File 4 – 00:04:17 Geri Allen: Yeah. Well, I, I think, um, a big part of my, my interest in Mary Lou was just based on her as a pianist and as a composer. Then it became really clear that she was a, a person that broke through, you know, the different eras of the music. So what she contributed, uh, was much bigger than being a great pianist or even just a great, uh, composer. She was really a person who facilitated, uh, transitions that were like breakthroughs in the music. And, and that was, uh, really important for me as a young pianist to see, uh, this woman who, um, the musicians really respected and they really, uh, acknowledged her in a, in a way that, um, just gave me a sense of, of being, being able to belong on the scene, in a way.
File 4 – 00:05:24 Geri Allen: Without her, and also, you know, people like Lil Hardin, Hardin Armstrong, um, I think, you know, it, it changes the whole, uh, arc of the history of the music and Mary Lou was key and an inspiration to people like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell in a certain kind of way that, um, maybe others were not, you know?
File 4 – 00:05:53 Geri Allen: So ...
Interviewer: Give me an idea of some of the changes that she facilitated.
File 4 – 00:06:10 Geri Allen: Well, um, Dr. Billy Taylor was a mentor of mine, the grat pianist (Sirens in Background) ...
File 4 – 00:06:28 Geri Allen: As a student, um, at Howard University, um, I met John Malachi, who was my teacher. And John Malachi played in Billy Eckstine’s band, um, along with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and, um, and Sarah Vaughan. And he talked about, um, Mary Lou Williams, you know? And he talked about how all the musicians saw Mary Lou Williams (Noise in Background?), um, and her place as a center kind of, of, uh, connectivity in terms of the scene.
File 4 – 00:07:11 Geri Allen: She had an apartment on Hamilton Terrace in Harlem. And pianists from all over, uh, and great musicians from all over NewYork, would come there to share ideas, to play each other’s tunes, to talk about, you know, creative breakthroughs they were having, having with regard to, you know, harmonic in, inventions and melodic inventions. And being in that, uh, you know, that environment she created allowed for a kind of laboratory of these brilliant minds to be together, sharing ideas.
File 4 – 00:08:01 Geri Allen: And it was at a time, uh, in the mid-40s where things were starting to kind of jump off and I think having that place where you know she was an elder to Monk and Bud Powell, for instance, and Dizzy. She was a person who, you know, younger musicians always look to the, the ... the older generation to kind of validate them, to say, “Okay, this, this person is ... they can play.” Or, you know, “They have something to offer.”
File 4 – 00:08:34 Geri Allen: And many of the, the musicians from that era, from Mary Lou’s peers, for instance, were not doing that for the be-bop musicians. They, they were not encouraging that. You know, they did not necessarily agree with what they were doing musically. But Mary Lou, she not only agreed with what they were doing, she really encouraged it.
File 4 – 00:08:58 Geri Allen: And so she was a, a person of, of, um, really important, uh, elder that gave, uh, credentials, so to speak, to, to Monk or to Bud Powell, or these, these really great innovators that we would see. Um.
File 4 – 00:09:18 Geri Allen: So, I mean, that and then all of the important work she did as, as a ... from ... in, in her prime as a, an arranger, composer, pianist of, of note who would, uh, be called by Ellington or be called by Benny Goodman, or be called by these, uh, people that were, uh, the ... some of the most visible and important musicians of their time to write for, for them because her, her compositions were ... and her writing ability was, you know, un, unmatched.
File 4 – 00:09:52 Geri Allen: So, uh, she represented, you know, early music and, and, as we looked at the be-bop era, you know, she also represented, uh, someone who, uh, continued to push the, the, um ... she, she continued to push through, uh, to find her, her ... now how can I put it?
File 4 – 00:10:25 Geri Allen: She transcended eras and she continued to push through, uh, the, this history of the music to, uh, to reach for the, the modern ideas and, um, the, the thoughts that, uh, musicians like, um, of her ... I’m having a hard time articulating this now. So we’ll have to re-do this.
Interviewer: Just take your time ...
File 4 – 00:10:50 Geri Allen: But she remained modern. (Crosstalk) That’s the word I’m looking for.
File 4 – 00:10:54 Geri Allen: She, she remained modern throughout her career as a player and, uh, continued to reach for, uh, you know, ideas that were innovative ideas. Um. She was also a great inspiration in terms of the, the spiritual music that she, uh, contributed to, to the world. And so all of these things, um, you know, as we look at the scene today, many musicians are feeling very, uh, empowered, you know, to express their creative ideas through their spiritual foundations.
File 4 – 00:11:36 Geri Allen: And, uh, she was one of those people who did that early on in the music, um, along with Ellington. But, um, her “Mass,” and she has a, like a, a whole body of religious music that we’re continuing to, uh, unearth and perform in, in different, uh, kind of con ... configurations, from very, very large pieces to, to smaller works.
Interviewer: She had, for a woman at her time, I don’t think people can really understand how ... what a ‘maverick’ she was and how strong she was ... this is 2014; think about during her day what it took to be that. (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:12:32 Geri Allen: Right. It’s really hard to imagine, um, you know the power that that that takes, you know, to kind of be in this place and, uh, surrounded by very strong personalities and to be this young woman who really knew herself and understood her worth at a very young age, and was able to focus, uh, and achieve her goals, you know, as an artist. And certainly she, she remains a ... such a huge inspiration for, um, all of us.
File 4 – 00:13:10 Geri Allen: You know, women musicians, uh, perhaps, in particular, in certain kinds of ways, because it’s so empowering, but to, to all the musicians who really know, uh, the value of this music and the, and this history, and the legacy of the history of this music.
Interviewer: Can you tell me anything about her playing style? When you’d hear it, you’d know ... how can you tell?
File 4 – 00:13:49 Geri Allen: Yeah. Do you have any clips of her that you’re going to add to this? (Interviewer Affirms) Okay. One of the pieces you might want to think about is, um, “Nightlife.” Um. I can, you know, also suggest some other things, too. But if you talk about her, her technique at the age of seventeen years old, she was playing at such a high level of virtuosity, and harmonic, uh, innovation, at such a young age. I would say, um, that she came through, you know, people like James P. Johnson as sources for inspiration, uh, Fats Waller. So her left hand was, uh, amazing, you know? And the, the way that she was able to, um, the independence, the ability to be able to hold, uh ...
File 4 – 00:14:44 Geri Allen: ‘Cause you really ... to ... in order to play that way, you have to know where everything is on the instrument. Uh. You know, not looking. So she would know where these notes were with the left hand. And, uh, then be able to maintain this level of independence and, and virtuosity with the right.
File 4 – 00:15:05 Geri Allen: So that was the foundation of her playing. But she also, um, I think coming through the be-bop era, she was also kind of dealing with some things that would influence, uh, people like Bud and, and Monk, uh, because she was doing harmonically some very advanced, uh, kinds of harmonic, uh, things that we would see continue to evolve through those musicians.
File 4 – 00:15:33 Geri Allen: And I’m certain that, um, you know, their ... that was influencing, uh, that next generation of players. And the fact that she, again, um, mentored them in, in a certain kind of way, brought them in, into her orbit, so to speak, with, uh, people like, um, Tatum would be there and John Malachi, I talked about. You know, Hank Jones and all of these great musicians, all together in this kind of, uh, a laboratory environment.
File 4 – 00:16:10 Geri Allen: But, certainly, her playing, um, she’s one of the great pianists of all time, you know, in what she has contributed across the whole history of the music, from early ... watching her transitioning from, you know, the, the early recordings, uh, into the, you know, 40s, through, through the 50s and the 60s, it’s a real lesson in just the whole history of, of the evolution of the piano itself.
File 4 – 00:16:38 Geri Allen: I believe a lot of her, um, the way that she would teach in her history class at Duke University would be, or she would sit down and play the whole history of the piano, from the early, you know, beginnings, of having looked in, into the eyes of, uh, Jelly Roll Morton, which she did, going all the way through that early time, you know, through having played with Cecil Taylor, you know, in, in the 70s.
File 4 – 00:17:07 Geri Allen: So, that’s something that, uh, no one else can really say that they’ve done. So she’s, uh, just a great inspiration to ... just to continue to study this whole ...all these different periods in her, in her career. And that’s what we’re continuing to do.
Interviewer: A question I always have is where does something like that come from? I know her sister said, I think it was that she was four years old, and she was in a church, and her mother told her to go over and ‘fool around on the piano’ ... something she did on the piano, her mother said, “Oh, praise Jesus ... “ How does one become ...? Supportive parents ... ?
File 4 – 00:18:31 Geri Allen: Well, you know, I, I remember a story, uh, that, um, about her playing, you know, her mother, sitting on her mother’s lap and she played something that was so amazing that her mother dropped her. (Small Laugh) And, and then ran out to the neighbors to have them come and, and look at this baby playing the piano.
File 4 – 00:18:55 Geri Allen: So I think she was called to this. You know, this was a gift that she had. Um. She understood, uh, her, you know, she, she understood that she had to follow this path. Um. And she was validated for that because she was so talented that those people that were around her, I think encouraged that talent and, and made commentary about how good you are and so it, I think that gave her, um, the kind of encouragement that kind of built her, uh, confidence through, uh, to continue on into this career.
File 4 – 00:19:36 Geri Allen: But the kinds of things that she did were, where she would be in a group of all men, on the road at twelve years old, I, I don’t think those were things that there was really a precedent for. So she was experiencing these things and going through this as a young woman where there weren’t other role models necessarily that she could refer to.
File 4 – 00:19:59 Geri Allen: So she was inventing, she was inventing the wheel, so to speak. Um. And there were other women that, like, as I mentioned, Lil Hardin Armstrong much earlier, but there was not necessarily that ... those connections that she would have, uh, had access to, really – what is this like to be on the road, uh, for this, this many, you know, days a year? What kinds of things do you look out for? What, what’s safe? What’s not safe? You know?
File 4 – 00:20:34 Geri Allen: I think she had to invent a lot of those things herself. Uh. And what made, uh, what makes it so wonderful for us as musicians today is that she represents the greatest of, of what our, our music has to offer. And she es, established this place, you know, that, uh, that women would be able to find a part in this music.
Interviewer: It’s amazing to me, what she was able to do. I guess she became a leader because she was it. She had to lead herself, right?
File 4 – 00:21:19 Geri Allen: Well, she stand ... started with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy. So she was out there on the road with this very, uh, established band, but as a very young person. Um. And they started to find out all the gifts that she had to offer, as a writer, as a pianist, you know, uh, and that she could really, um, I think be a draw for that band.
File 4 – 00:21:46 Geri Allen: And, after a period of time, people started to really see that if you, if you have a “Mary Lou Williams Chart,” you know, you were going to have a hit. You know? So, Benny Goodman, uh, you know, used her piece “Roll ‘Em,” which became a big hit for him. And, and I think that, again, she, uh, she brought quality to whatever the, uh, environment she was participating in.
File 4 – 00:22:14 Geri Allen: And, and there was a great deal of respect that came from her peers, which was so important. Um. It’s important to acknowledge that, that those musicians really looked up to her, um, or saw her as an important equal peer.
(Pause/”Fan”)(Off-mic discussion ... Not to camera)
Interviewer: ... the Andy Kirk story, her playing with the right hand ... (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:24:02 Geri Allen: Yeah. Yeah. That, um, I just, I recall that, uh, Mary Lou Williams talking about having seen Lovie Austin as a, a young girl, seeing this amazing woman pianist and composer, uh, writing during the break, writing, uh, for the next band that would come up, with her leg crossed and a cigarette in her mouth. So she was preparing, you know, for the next show. Because I, at the time, these were films, uh, silent films, that were being, you know, shown in kind of a review.
File 4 – 00:24:46 Geri Allen: And, uh, she later talked about being able to do the same thing, where she’s, uh, writing, not necessarily smoking a cigarette, but, uh, you know, writing and directing the band, and composing all at the same time.
File 4 – 00:25:00 Geri Allen: And so this kind of, uh, mind, you know, just gives you a sense of the, the brilliance, you know, of Mary Lou Williams.
File 4 – 00:25:11 Geri Allen: And we also talked about, um, the film “Kansas City.” Uh. And she was such an important part of the Kansas City, uh, time, period of time, where all the great big bands would come through there. And Robert Altman wanted to do a, a film that acknowledged that period in time. I think he was very much influenced as a, or an artist, by being around that music.
File 4 – 00:25:44 Geri Allen: And I, I had the honor of playing Mary Lou Williams and Father Peter O’Brien, uh, was the one who suggested that I be that person. And, uh, I just remember going through, uh, the process of preparing, you know, from seeing the scene for, for the next, uh, piano moment that would happen and how challenging those, uh, pieces were and I really would have to be in there, uh, you know, shedding and getting really prepared for that left hand and all of those kinds of, you know, uh, technical challenges that she really, uh, were, were characteristic of her sound.
File 4 – 00:26:34 Geri Allen: And, uh, it was really exciting, you know. I think it brought me close to, uh, just the challenge of what she, uh, she accomplished as a pianist.
Interviewer: Just start again, makes sure we know the film was “Kansas City,” a Robert Altman film ... the year ...
File 4 – 00:27:03 Geri Allen: ... I don’t remember the year now.
Interviewer: ... the title and the filmmaker ... (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:27:08 Geri Allen: So the film was called “Kansas City” and Robert Altman was the, uh, director of the film. And he wanted to create, um, I think around another, like a sub-story, uh, that was going on in Kansas City. He wanted to also talk about the music or have, you know, the audience experience what that music was like. And the “Hey Hey Club,” and I think if you go down to, um, Kansas City now, they have that street, Vine Street, that’s kind of, uh, a focus, you know, in that area of what was happening in Kansas City.
File 4 – 00:27:52 Geri Allen: And you can kind of walk through the area. They try to, to continue to maintain, um, make it an historical site. But, um, we went to that area and filmed the film right there where all those clubs would have been, uh, where Basie would have been, where, um, all those great bands would have come through.
File 4 – 00:28:12 Geri Allen: And, um, the storyline, uh, focused around Mary Lou Williams as one of the important, uh, players in that experience. So I had to, um, kind of work on those pieces, scene by scene, to try to prepare, uh, you know, to prepare to play that music, which was very challenging.
Interviewer: To be chosen to do that, how did you feel when you were chosen to do that film?
File 4 – 00:28:52 Geri Allen: It was really a great honor to be chosen, um, to have the opportunity to play such a great, pivotal participant in the history. And, of course, as a piano player, uh, I, I did understand the challenge that that would mean. So I remember Altman kind of setting up different places for me to practice on the set so that when there was down time, I could be preparing for the next scene and the next piece of music.
File 4 – 00:29:23 Geri Allen: It was, it was really, um, like illuminating, you know? Because to go from like kind of this idea of transcribing, or trying to come close to the sound that she was, uh, producing, was ... it’s not the easiest thing to do. It’s very challenging.
File 4 – 00:29:44 Geri Allen: As we talked about the left hand, and all, and that, uh, independence that,uh, had to be in place to play what you call, um, “stride,’ you know? The stride style of piano. And the, um, speed, you know, all of those different things that were a part of, uh, of what Mary Lou accomplished as a pianist is, you know, it’s, it’s a handful. (Laughing) A fist, a fistful.
Interviewer: Did you ever get to do a scene in that film where you think you nailed it?
File 4 – 00:30:22 Geri Allen: Oh, I don’t know. (Laughs) You know, I, uh, I think the, the combination of all of the musicians together, uh, I think everyone came wanting to give their best. And, um, and I certainly came wanting to give my best as well. Nailing it? I don’t know. But I certainly did the best I could.
Interviewer: So what kind of projects are you working on now at the University of Pittsburgh that involve Mary Lou? Where are you in your research? What are you doing?
File 4 – 00:30:56 Geri Allen: Well, um, recenty, we did a, a cyber symposium, uh, that celebrated Mary Lou Williams and her, uh, her body of work. Now, we, we had, um, (Let me start again)
File 4 – 00:31:29 Geri Allen: So, in the spring, uh, we were fortunate to, uh, to have a cyber symposium, how, um, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh, which brought together a, a group of scholars, Mary Lou Williams scholars, in, including, uh, Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, um, Dr. Dwight Andrews, um.
File 4 – 00:31:58 Geri Allen: Farah Jasmine Griffin just released a book called “Harlem Nocturns,” which features a chapter about Mary Lou Williams. And, uh, Dr. Andrews is writing, um, a book on spirituality in jazz, which, uh, Mary Lou Williams will be, um, a major focus of that, along with Ellington, I be, I believe, Yusef Lateef, and John Coltrane.
File 4 – 00:32:23 Geri Allen: Uh. And so these, uh, scholars presented, um, on, on their research. And we also had Father Peter O’Brien, from the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, who spoke about Mary Lou Williams, uh, and his, um, many, many years as her manager and friend.
File 4 – 00:32:48 Geri Allen: He, uh, also kind of commented on some performances that we had, live performances of, uh, Mary Lou Williams’s work and, um, some, um ...So, let me, let me kind of break down again what happened.
File 4 – 00:33:12 Geri Allen: We had, uh, five universities, including, uh, the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Columbia University, and, uh, Emory University, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. And, um, the Kennedy Center, uh, was supportive of the project by supplying, um, an instrument to Jason Maran, who was the artistic director there.
File 4 – 00:33:45 Geri Allen: And Jason performed from Columbia site. Vijay Ire, a wonderful pianist as well, performed from the Harvard Universitiy site. And we had a young pianist from the University of Michigan, um, Malcolm Dean, who, uh, performed one of Mary Lou Williams’, actual transcription of one of her works.
File 4 – 00:34:10 Geri Allen: And all of this kind of happened simultaneously, um, in real time, through this technology called, “Internet2.” So Jason, who is a MacArthur Fellow, and Vijay, uh, both MacArthur Fellows, um, along with Carrie Mae Weems, who is a really important filmmaker, uh, collaborated. We all collaborated so that we had simultaneousj, kind of improvisations happening around Mary Lou Williams as a source of inspiration.
File 4 – 00:34:46 Geri Allen: Uh. Carrie Lou … Carrie Mae made a film that, uh, was a … was premiered during this event, um, inspired by Mary Lou Williams. And so, as the film played, we all responded to the film and to each other, creatively. And, um, had all this happening kind of at the same time, from five different places.
File 4 – 00:35:14 Geri Allen: So, that’s, um, something we hope to continue to be able to do, to continue to use this technology to, uh, engage people that are inspired by her work and, uh, perhaps look at other Pittsburgh, uh, icons and people of that, uh, just the sheer, you know, um, these historical figures of sheer importance from, uh, different, you know, different pianists, maybe Strayhorn, maybe we’ll look at Garner. Maybe we’ll look at some of these other artists, as well, in this kind of context, where we … we’re able to bring, uh, scholars together to kind of discuss these people and, and take a closer look at their work.
Interviewer: It changed a lot since you first arrived at Pitt, hasn’t it? (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:36:09 Geri Allen: Yeah. The possibilities, yeah. In some ways (Crosstalk) …
Man, Off-Mic (Nelson?): When you were in the movie, “Kansas City,” were you playing live or did you do a track … ?
File 4 – 00:36:23 Geri Allen: No, we were playing live. (Man Affirms)
Man, Off-Mic: I thought you were. And that’s a risk for a director, isn’t it? You had such competent people in your band …
(Discussion, film, off-mic)
Interviewer: It’s so great that Altman went for that rather than get someone to just fake it. (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:36:59 Geri Allen: Right. Well, he was … he loved the music. You know? And you could tell that, that he really loved the music. Um. And it was interesting watching …
Interviewer: Why don’t you tell us … make a statement that you were playing live … (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:37:19 Geri Allen: Yeah. We, we were definitely playing live in the film “Kansas City.” And, uh, I think the moments where the musicians would come together to do certain, um, performances, uh, there was the spirit of … the com, the competitive spirit was there, of the jam session, of, you know, who was going to come out on top and who wasn’t, and who belonged and who didn’t.
File 4 – 00:37:49 Geri Allen: The whole energy, he really wanted that, you know, that spirit of that fierce, uh, spirit of competition that happens in a session. Um. And he, he seemed to have a certain kind of trust in everyone’s ability to bring their best to the moment, um, in the same way that he had with his team of people, with his camera people, with his makeup people, with all of those people, he would have them there because he trusted that they (Traffic Noise?) knew what he wanted.
File 4 – 00:38:27 Geri Allen: And he’d let them just do what they did. And I felt the same as a musician in that scene; he wasn’t really telling us a lot of, of what to do. He was saying, “Come, come and bring yourself, put yourself in this environment. Think about these great names that you’re representing and bring the best you have to bring.”
File 4 – 00:38:50 Geri Allen: And I think that’s everybody tried to do.
Interviewer: Okay. I’m going to ask you two questions …
(Off-mic discussion: Geri to Nelson – I appreciate the feedback you’re giving … )
Interviewer: Alright. Two more questions. What does it feel like when you’re playing and you’re on, and it’s working. What happens to you, spiritually? Mentally? Emotionally? Physically?
File 4 – 00:40:16 Geri Allen: That’s a hard question, isn’t it? You know, I think, um, that the thing about music is it really is … it, it’s like life. You know? It’s life, but we’re onstage. You know? But I think we all have those moments where, uh, that you’re not forcing anything. And that everything that you’ve prepared to do, everything is kind of flowing and in place. I think that happens when you’re running, too, where you’re fighting through that first bit of, you know, where you’re, you know, you’re struggling and then, all of a sudden, you hit this flow.
File 4 – 00:41:02 Geri Allen: I remember this movie called “Bagger Vance.” I loved that movie where, uh, the character says something about your “authentic flow,” I think that’s the word that he used. That’s Will, uh, Will Smith. And I, I really believe that whole movie must have been, uh, scripted by somebody that loved jazz because the way they talked about that moment (Snaps Fingers?) where you just … you, you lose consciousness of all of the moving pieces that have to happen because you’ve prepared all of that and then … and you don’t have to think about it anymore. And it just happens, you know?
File 4 – 00:41:45 Geri Allen: Um. So that’s kind of what it’s like, I think where things are just, you know, you, you don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s just, you know, “authentic flow,” (Laughs) Yeah.
Interviewer: I like that. I have to see ‘Bagger Vance” again … last thing, I want you to explain something for novices about … encapsulate the story of the left hand versus the right hand. Make it a little bit shorter. (Allen Affirms) And also explain what, when you’re talking about “stride” piano … I’d love to have something where I can drop in a sentence or two you can explain it … (Allen Affirms)
File 4 – 00:42:40 Geri Allen: Okay. Well, “stride” piano, um, it was one of the earlier, uh, approaches to the piano. So we look at people like, uh, Jelly Roll Morton as a, a foundational figure, uh, and Scott Joplin as the early foundational figures of that.
File 4 – 00:43:01 Geri Allen: But there’s a jump that happened. So it’s like, uh, ear … you know, you have like the tuba, which is the low part of the instrument and then, you know, the, you know, the middle section of the piano where, uh, where you’re playing the harmony.
File 4 – 00:43:19 Geri Allen: So you’re plahing the bass and then, you know, uh … and this is happening, depending on the tempo, uh, and it’s a very challenging thing to do because you have to know where that … those spaces are.
File 4 – 00:43:36 Geri Allen: That means hours and hours and hours and hours of practice, um, so that you really are … you, you can close your eyes and see that distance. And, and so that’s what has to happen. Your, your, uh, you know, it has to lock in, in terms of the motor. You know?
File 4 – 00:44:00 Geri Allen: And then the right hand then becomes the “talking,” uh, the expression, you know, that floats fluidly against that. Uh. And, and Mary Lou Williams had a way of doing that that was very, uh … such and articulate approach to, to how to create melody, uh, very complex rhythms, very complex har, harmonic ideas on … across that, challenging locked hand, you know, and with the left hand.
File 4 – 00:44:35 Geri Allen: So we’re moving through harmony; we’re moving through cadence and all of these kinds of things. And so it’s a lot of balls in the air, a lot to, to be able to command, but she, she was a sheer master at that.
Interviewer: How did she arrive at that? Was that taught to her … ?
File 4 – 00:44:58 Geri Allen: Well, she talked about piano rolls and listening to the early piano rolls, uh, of Jelly Roll Morton and you know she loved Fats Waller. So those things were available to musicians, uh, through the piano rolls at the time. And that’s a big part of how we learn in jazz, is through, you know, transcribing, um, in the same way that, you know, I’m, I’m transcribing her to try to replicate what she played for, for Robert Altman, uh, for a moment in a Robert Altman film.
File 4 – 00:45:33 Geri Allen: Or to integrate that into my vocabulary as a pianist because it’s so rich. That’s what you want; you want to, to integrate the richnesss of, uh, the langauge of the music into your playing. So the most direct way to do that is through, you know, transcribing.
File 4 – 00:45:53 Geri Allen: And that’s old, an old, old way that we’ve all learned to, uh, you know, to, to articulate the language of the music. And, you know, we learn from the masters. Uh. And certainly she represents how you learn by making the statement that, “I, I got it from Jelly Roll rolls,” or for, from, you know, or going to hear these different musicians who were her inspirations.
File 4 – 00:46:21 Geri Allen: I think that’s what we all do.
Interviewer: Can you really get that down on paper? How good of a musician do you have to be in order to do that?
File 4 – 00:46:36 Geri Allen: Can you get it down on paper? Well, you, you can … you can get … there’s certain things you can’t get, I, I agree with you. There’s certain nuances that you can’t. But there, there … the skeletal aspects of most of it, you can get. I mean there, in terms of the piano, we, uh, you know, we, we don’t have the, the … the same, it … you know, ability to bend notes, uh, like horns or string instruments do.
File 4 – 00:47:05 Geri Allen: So there’s a, there’s a good deal of that, of, of the nuance that we can get. But there’s some things that are always going to be called “X Factor” that you can’t really, you can’t really write, you know, that they’re, they’re beyond, um, being able to capture in that kind of way
File 4 – 00:47:26 Geri Allen: But you can get enough to, you know …
Interviewer: I guess it’s one way to preserve the music in a form other than just a pure recording and somebody can access it later?
File 4 – 00:47:56 Geri Allen: Well, with what we do, I think, as, as jazz musicians, I mean we … the music lives and exists and, you know, uh, you, you hear a performance and it, it may be recorded; it may not be recorded. Um. And it becomes a one-time special experience. And then, and then you have the good fortune of, of some music that’s recorded. You know, where you can go back over and over and study it, and try to figure out what was done.
File 4 – 00:48:30 Geri Allen: But the listening part of it, and the internalizing part of it, is, uh, it’s key to really being able to, able to, um, understand the language of jazz. And I think, uh, I mentioned earlier, that, you know, my father played that music a lot for us as children. And, and I think that that is a, a key, you know, being able to, um, internalize it and then, you know, that whole idea about practice and continuing to, to return to, uh, you know, these ideas to try to perfect, perfect them, you know?
File 4 – 00:49:16 Geri Allen: Um. You become more and more, uh, I think detail oriented. You know, that’s the idea of you continue to, um, focus. You know, and you get to this place where it seems focused and then you notice that it’s not focused and you go in deeper and continue to try to focus.
File 4 – 00:49:37 Geri Allen: And I think that’s the process that we, uh, as musicians, continue throughout our life, to, to try to make it as pristine as, as we can, you know, as we become aware that there’s another door to open, you know?
Interviewer: Can somebody that just learns to play the piano in the old style … can they learn to play jazz? Or is it something that comes from this internalization … or is it natural?
(Pause/Technical/”Two minutes left on card”) (Interviewer Affirms)
File 4 – 00:50:31 Geri Allen: … can you teach jazz? (Laughs)
Interviewer: … once they learn the keyboard … can you teach them to play jazz … ?
File 4 – 00:50:44 Geri Allen: I, I think that, um, (Excuse Me) from my experience, if somebody really wants to, uh, to invest their life in this journey, because it’s, it’s really, uh, I think people will say that the music picks you in some ways. You know? And you become … and really, uh, a passion … it’s a passionate, uh, it becomes a passionate experience where you, uh, you want to know as much as you can know.
File 4 – 00:51:20 Geri Allen: And you’re willing to put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable so that you can learn more or, uh, because it’s vulnerable. It’s a vulnerable thing to be an artist, you know, to be a musician, and you have to be willing to take those risks of somebody telling you, uh, that, you know, that, whatever, it’s not happening. Or, this is how … you know, you need to do it this way, or that way.
File 4 – 00:51:50 Geri Allen: And I think you have to be willing to say, ‘Okay, I really love this music. This is something that, uh, I need, uh, to fulfill my life as a person.” And then it becomes deeper than that. I think you have to … you, you spend a lot of time trying to figure things out. You go to hear the music; you go to where the people are who have the answers.
File 4 – 00:52:18 Geri Allen: It’s, it’s really a, it’s like a story. You know, it’s a storybook, uh, on how do you … how do you find the way to something, you know, how do 3-]you find the way to open that door. Uh. And I think musicians that are jazz musicians, um, really want to support that process …
File 4 – 00:52:39 (File 4 Ends)
Interviewer: … jazz people really understand it, get it …
Interviewer: I want to communicate to them what it is … (Allen Affirms)
File 5 – 00:00:13 Geri Allen: Yeah. So I think musicians, uh, really want to share this music with, uh, the, the next generation of young people that are coming up, uh, because there, there’s a history of that, where, uh, you know, young people are embraced that show an interest.
File 5 – 00:00:37 Geri Allen: And it keeps the music alive. It keeps the, the continuity going. And I’ve seen so many amazing young talents in the last, uh, you know, years that have had access to the music in a way that maybe, uh, is really unprecedented, you know, with having U-Tube and all these different kinds of places they can go to see a lot of the, um, music and a lot of things that are just really there.
File 5 – 00:01:13 Geri Allen: The idea is that, you know, if a young person comes up to me and says, you know, “This is something I really want to do,” you know, it’s, it’s a, it’s a privilege to be able to share that in the same way that, um, my mentors shared that with me.
File 5 – 00:01:33 Geri Allen: So it’s a, I think it’s a, a big part of how the music continues to live and how it, how it will continue to live.
Interviewer: Seeing these young musicians in recent years, is that happening here?
File 5 – 00:01:54 Geri Allen: Oh, yeah. Um. I was here at, uh, the African-American Institute, for instance, recently, and heard some really special talent here. And what, uh, James Johnson is doing and Pamela Johnson, you know, by reaching, uh, the, these young people at this age, is a part of that continuity that I’m talking about, for sure.
File 5 – 00:02:18 Geri Allen: And, you know, because I’m … and I, I want to ask you to do me a favor while we’re on camera, that I have a chance to look at, at what you decide to use. (Interviewer Affirms)
Interviewer: Yeah. We can do that for you. (Allen Affirms)
File 5 – 00:02:29 Geri Allen: Okay, ‘cause I just want to make sure that it’s coherent ‘cause I don’t feel … sometimes I feel like I’ve been not so, uh, co, coherent.
Interviewer: Part of my job to to make everybody … to make a coherent story. That’s my job, to do that. (Allen Affirms)
File 5 – 00:03:16 Geri Allen: Okay. ‘Cause what I … I was here, uh, as I mentioned, and I hear some really, um, wonderful talent here. But I haven’t been all around town. (Interviewer Affirms) And I don’t know everything that’s going on. So I would like to be able to say more, but I’m not able to. So that’s my, my concern, too. You know?
Interviewer: My instinct is your contribution to this is going to be largely Mary Lou Williams. That’s where I see you falling in … (Phone rings in background) …
File 5 – 00:04:12 Geri Allen: Yeah. Well there’s also, um, we can stop now. Is that okay?
(Pause/Technical/Set Up for Video Portrait)
File 5 – 00:04:43 (Video Portrait)
File 5 – 00:04:52 (Zoom)
File 5 – 00:05:03 (Pans)
File 5 – 00:05:39 (Okay. Thank you very much)
File 5 – 00:05:41 (File 5 Ends)
End of Geri Allen Interview