Pianist, composer, educator Geri Allen was born in Pontiac, Mich., June 12, 1957; raised in Detroit; was a graduate of Howard University; earned a degree in ethnomusicology at the University of Pittsburgh; played all over the world; died in a hospital in Philadelphia; and her funeral was in Newark, N.J. Allen’s arc of music, like her marks on the map, was equally diverse, and during the funeral services July 8 at Bethany Baptist Church, her remarkable journey was highlighted in words and music.
In fact, the eloquence and the warmth of the encomiums complemented the expressive music evoked by a roster of stellar performers, each of them connected to her in either a professional or personal way.
The secular and the sacred, so to speak, blended beautifully when vocalist Cassandra Wilson delved into “Deep River,” with Vijay Iyer on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Wilson gave the old spiritual a slow, winding lament, replete with her shifting tonalities. On the opening tune, “Gemini,” composed by Mary Lou Williams, the alto saxophonist Oliver Lake summoned a chorale of sound with sonic moments reminiscent of Allen’s evocations of Williams’ music.
Lyrics gave way to Spalding’s musical utterances and scats on “Beautiful Friendship,” with Kenny Barron at the piano. Spalding’s bass and the percussive intensity of Terri Lyne Carrington was perfectly appropriate given the relationship Allen had with the performers, particularly Spalding and Carrington, a point further emphasized on “Unconditional Love.” Several websites have Allen with her girl pals with a rendition of the tune. Also, the latest Downbeat lists Allen at No. 13 among pianists in the annual Critics Poll, placing her between Robert Glasper and Cecil Taylor, indicative of her musical penchant.
The noted songwriter and vocalist Valerie Simpson during her moment delivered a typically soulful composition that was part recitation, part song and part prayer. After her heartfelt song, Simpson received an extended ovation. Some of the spirit of her song reached Dorthaan Kirk, speaking for the Vespers Community, and thoughtful reflections from two minister/musicians with roots in Detroit, the Rev. Elreta Dodds and the Rev. Dr. Dwight Andrews. Mount Allen III delivered a very moving tribute to his sister, recalling some very special memories between them.
While the audience silently read the obituary, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Bob Hurst and drummer Jack DeJohnette eased smoothly into “I’m All Smiles,” a lilting ballad that gave way to Allen’s own composition “Feed the Fire.” There was a slight change in the ensemble with Payton on trumpet (and Christian Sands at the keyboard), and he seemed to be immensely prepared to capture Allen’s way of coloring a tune, mixing a variety of harmonics with fleeting chromatics.
The stage was now set for the Rev. Dr. William Howard’s eulogy, and the church’s former spiritual leader has lost none of the grace and eloquence that often empowered his sermons. He spoke of Allen as an artist “attuned to the spirit,” in touch with the Creator and prepared to convey a message of peace and love.
Vocalist Carmen Lundy reprised Allen’s “Timeless Portraits and Dreams,” a composition dedicated to the fallen and the survivors of 9/11.
The church’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy Jones, who officiated the services, offered a prayer at the end of the ceremony, and the choir softly invoked “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
And what a friend we had in Geri Allen, and that was given further credence by the number of musicians and artists present, including several current and former Detroiters such as Joan Belgrave, Kirk Lightsey and Michael Kelly Williams.
Along with the legacy of Allen’s music, her survivors include her father, Mount Allen Jr.; her brother, Mount Allen III; and her children Laila Deen, Wallace Vernell and Barbara Antoinette.