By GWEN OREL
Many Montclairites and jazz fans are mourning the death of pianist Geri Allen, a onetime resident here, who died on Tuesday, June 27, at the age 0f 60, from complications of cancer.
The death was confirmed by her website, geriallen.com, which also provides the artist’s full biography.
Allen, originally from Detroit, lived in Montclair for a while in the 2000s, and taught at Montclair State University. For the past few years, she had been director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She was also program director of NJPAC’s all-female jazz residency, a weeklong program for women ages 14 to 25. Among the artists she worked with were Ornette Coleman, Betty Carter, Herbie Hancock, Alice Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
Melissa Walker, artistic director of Jazz House Kids, said she had a “long history with Geri. She raised three children who went to Montclair schools.” Allen “is really special to all of us around the world.”
Allen’s career spanned 30 years, Walker said.
“Inspiring female jazz artists is part of her legacy. She’s been at the vanguard of creative music. We have an entire program encouraging young women to pick up the mantle of this great music.”
Inspiring young women, including her work as director of the female jazz residency at NJPAC, was “near and dear to her heart,” Walker said. Along with being an impressive bandleader, music maker and improviser, Allen was “very aware that she was walking in the footsteps of not just great artists but of incredible female pioneers, and she helped to continue that for other young artists down the road.”
“She was, and will continue to be, a huge role model for all of us women musicians,” Montclair jazz pianist and composer Diane Moser wrote in an email. “I know that she had so much more to give; in her life, in her music, her passing creates an enormous void for all of us.”
Moser said “Geri Allen was an immensely creative and incredible pianist” whose compositions were “exciting, energizing and often times deeply spiritual.”
Walker described performing with Allen as “a thrill.”
But Allen never played at the Jazz Festival produced by Jazz House Kids, Walker said with a laugh. “We had that conversation. She was a very astute woman. She said, ‘There will be a time, but it’s not now. This my son’s time.’ She was very aware she wanted him to have the freedom to grow as much as possible.” Allen’s son, Wallace Roney Jr., played trumpet with Jazz House Kids. Wallace Roney, his father, plays trumpet as well.
“She said, ‘Jazz House Kids is going to be my son’s musical home. There will be a time for me.’”
The balance of being a mother and a performer traveling the world was something Allen spoke about, Walker said: “We had many conversations about the village that needed to be around her to make it possible for her calling, which was her music, to be able to exist.” The people around her, her manager and support, rallied to make it possible, and Allen always showed gratitude for that, Walker explained. “She felt that we were a part of her journey that way.”
Moser described Allen as a “very caring and loving person.”
Walker agrees. “She was the kind of person who opened her door when you needed help.
“I recall a number of years ago when Christian [McBride, Walker’s husband] was away during Thanksgiving and she invited me over to share a Thanksgiving meal with her family.
“All of that came through in her music. She had a deep passion for family, unity, togetherness, and legacy. She is a contemporary artist of today who has made a legacy in this music that will last many lifetimes.”