Geri Allen is, with all certainty, the renaissance woman of Modern Jazz. Musician (and more pointedly, instrumentalist), scholar, professor, mother, African American, and female, Allen has deepened the complexities (and possibilities) of what it means to be a jazz musician. It is likely for this reason that she has been recognized in ways not characteristic of typical jazz commendation. She is the first woman to receive the Danish Jazzpar Prize, she is a Guggenheim Fellow for Musical Composition (2008-2009), she has received honors and awards from various universities, as well as receiving the first Soul Train Lady of Soul award for jazz and an NAACP Image award nomination. Her ever-enduring desire to teach and learn is immersed in her artistry. She is a professor by profession, but she is a natural scholar, making her one of the most profound musicians in the field. With Allen, nothing is surface. Her works are always layered with a combination of cultural homage, imagination, and inventiveness. The jazz master, whose recording career as a leader is just shy of thirty years, is still embarking on uncharted territories, with the release of her first Christmas album, A Child is Born.
“It was really organic in the way that it happened,” says Allen as we talked during her layover to Pittsburg on a busy travel day. “It found its genesis in the church at Bethany [Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey]. We did a concert there two years ago, and the choir embraced the idea of doing this music, and I was so embraced by the church, you know? I felt like I had to come back…and I did come back. I felt so very grateful to be a part of it. So the music really did grow out of that…it has its foundation there.”
Beyond a mere word or concept, foundation has been a guiding principle in Allenʼs career, and while there are many who believe, on some level or another, that leaning on foundation and tradition is a surefire way to stagnate jazz, Allenʼs example could not be a truer testament to the opposite. One of the most innovative musicians in jazz, Allen believes firmly in embracing the totality of her culture in order to arrive at the highest form of artistic expression. “I think people who are innovators…they just donʼt drop out of the air,” says Allen of the idea of separating innovation from tradition. “There is something in place, something that was developed from a body of collective work, something the field or the culture agrees to call innovation, a body of work which has to be acknowledged and evolved within and through, a living and breathing criteria which can then be defined as innovation. There is a foundation in every culture, a respect for its traditions which are celebrated within, and then shared with the world. These define humanity at its best. I donʼt think innovation exists without an acknowledgment of and respect for foundation or cultural.”
Allen holds fast to this concept most endearingly on A Child Is Born. The granddaughter of a Methodist minister, she grew up in the church, and found “deep connection” in that sense of community and heritage. She also made a trip to Bethlehem a few years ago, an experience she says undoubtedly influenced the making of this album. “We played the first Jerusalem Jazz Festival, [so] as soon as we got off of the plane and set our bags down, we went straight to the Western Wall, where people are praying and leaving prayers on the Wall. I canʼt even express the feeling of that communion between the people there. And so we performed and then we felt we were so close to Bethlehem, that there was no way that we were going miss the opportunity. So, we made the trip there twice, and it was an amazing… I mean,to go to the place where Christ was born, to be there in the cave, to spend time there in meditation, it was certainly life-changing.”
Far from a setlist of re-harmed holiday heart-warmers with some jazzy elements, A Child Is Born is, for one, powerfully thought-provoking, at times pensive, which is a most appropriate evocation of mood given the deeply historical framework of this project. Emory Universityʼs Professor of Music, Reverend Dwight D. Andrews puts it best in his eloquent liner notes for the album in saying, “Ms. Allen has managed to capture the wonder and mystery, innocence, beauty, and hope of the Christmas season.” Comprised of a thoughtful mixture of classic and original repertoire, Allen explores traditional and ancient themes with interpretations of “Imagining Gena at Sunrise” and “Imaging Gena at Sunset” supported by stunning cover art by artist Kabuya Pamela Bowens, which depicts the Black Madonna and Child. The traditional “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” includes stirring vocal samples from the women of the Quilt Collective of Geeʼs Bend, Alabama. Her own “God Is With Us” is based on Matthew 1:23; the angel coming to Joseph in a dream with the message that the Virgin Mary will give birth to a son, Emmanuel, whose name is the titleʼs translation.
Allen also breathes new life into familiar Christmas repertoire with songs like “Away In a Manger”, “Silent Night”, “Angels We Have Heard On High”, and most notably for me, the Thad Jones classic, “A Child Is Born”, a performance which she dedicates to the composerʼs late brother, the illustrious pianist, Hank Jones, who himself was a genius at infusing modern gospel chords and substitutions in jazz repertoire. Allen channels Jones with her exquisite improvisations, marinating in the allure of the songs chord changes, (and irresistibly quoting the Morey-Churchill classic, “Someday My Prince Will Come”) before getting to the songʼs melody a little after the half-way mark. Allenʼs virtuosic execution, gospel warmth, and breath-taking improvisations on this musical celebration of Christmas are, like all of her work, layered with meaning and reverence, presented with modernism and beauty. It is a balance she strikes unfailingly. Then again, sheʼd have it no other way.
It would be almost impossible (and almost irresponsible) for me not to delve further into this issue of tradition and modernism with someone as brilliant and gifted as Ms. Allen, as she defies the notion that giving reverence to tradition and foundation not only isolates oneʼs artistry, but subsequently pits one against a younger generation of musicians. Beyond Allenʼs originative musical demonstration, she is also one of the biggest advocates and supporters of the next generation of jazz musicians, teaching, mentoring, and hiring them. At this past Monterey Jazz Festival, I caught some of the set from her much buzzed about group Timeline, which features along with bassist, Kenny Davis, the young talents of drummer Kassa Overall and dynamic tap dancer, Maurice Chestnut. “There is a basic issue of connectedness to the culture, and the musicians…have to make an investment in that,” says Allen. “For me, there are certain musicians that I always felt made a really clear investment in that, and when I was growing up in Detroit that was just the way we did things. I mean, the people would come out and dance to the music, they understood what it was about, and they were just in it, because it was a part of the culture, and I think thatʼs what Iʼve wanted to have; that experience within jazz.”
Dance, and tap in particular, is becoming a bit of a lost or underrepresented art, making Allenʼs inclusion of this element of African American heritage in jazz all the more significant. “I think that those aspects of who we are, are what make our stories interesting and unique,” she says. With a Masterʼs degree in Ethnomusicology from Pittsburgh University, Allen’s long-standing rep for infusing various components of African American history into the jazz element of the culture, is largely influenced by one of her greatest heroes, Mary Lou Williams.
“Vijay Iyer, who I really appreciate,” says Allen, “had courage to make a comment some years ago in All About Jazz that basically says people…they go to school and they get degrees in jazz, and then they want to disassociate themselves with the musicʼs culture. They donʼt want to say that theyʼre playing jazz. Then they come up with these other descriptions that people use today [laughs] and he said, ʻWhen did jazz become something to get around or away from?ʼ I think Mary Lou Williams knew that.”
I found myself relating to what Allen was saying from a journalistic vantage. My frustration with the lack of diversity in jazz journalism, and subsequent disappointment in the coverage and acknowledgment of this generationʼs jazz musicians of color is a reflection of a consequence Ms. Allen so acutely discussed, offering a challenge that left me deeply affected. “There is a rainbow of talented, young people out here playing the music today, and that is wonderful, this music is and always has been all embracing. Looking at the next generation of African American musicians playing this music it is important that we continue to embrace these young people as well and encourage them to celebrate their roots, and if other people in the field are not acknowledging that, we should be. I think we have to continue on in the spirit of what Mary Lou Williams was saying, and Dr. Billy Taylor… our heroes would say, this is your culture, embrace it. You donʼt want to lose who you are. And thatʼs what happens when you donʼt embrace your culture… you disappear. These aspects empower the music, when it remains connected to it’s source.”
I donʼt think Iʼve ever heard words on this subject that have hit me harder than those. Itʼs like I gained ten years worth of perspective in that one sentence. Sure, the disconnect between Black youth and their cultural inheritance in jazz, is something that remains the major inspiration for this very blog. It is a serious problem. Yet, not until Ms. Allen framed the consequence so candidly, did it click on all cylinders. “Thatʼs what I impart to my students,” Allen continues, “and I have a very diverse and talented group of young people, and they are understanding that this is a music that is culturally based, and it is a music which comes from the African-American experience. If they really want to learn on a deeper level, then theyʼve got to embrace the culture, and I think thatʼs really where the heart of our conversation is. This is the norm with other world musics, you must deal with the cultural criteria. That premise is understood by artists, students, and scholars alike universally. Why is this language a problem when it comes to jazz, why does this idea rattle some people today?”
There may be a lot to fix, but Allen is optimistic — of both the future of jazz and its relation to journalism. She emits a gracious hope which is illuminated in her most recent work, but it is a characteristic she has always embodied.
“Itʼs OK for people to have opinions, thatʼs fine…and itʼs OK to publish opinions, and thatʼs fine. I feel strongly that there is a renaissance of amazing scholars in this area of African American music and culture. Iʼm looking at the writers, people like Farah Jasmine Griffin, people like Robin D.G. Kelley, and George Lewis…people of that ilk, who really are establishing a level of responsibility for how we will write about the music and how we talk about the music. And I just feel that these are the ways to look, [instead of] getting so upset about some of these other things that are not really dealing with the real core of what is happening in the culture. Like the book that Kelly did on Monk…that sets the bar of what the expectation of jazz scholarships should be…real, substantive research on the music, based on a respect for the cultural criteria accepted by the field … the folk. The music truly deserves this level of care. Ten years, you know, Kelly did that research. That kind of time and that kind of love and appreciation for the subject matter, is where I want to go personally to find out, what the facts were, on a much deeper level. These discussions about our innovators contributions are thrilling. And I think weʼre going to see more of this.”
The beauty in Allenʼs resolution is that it includes and challenges everyone across race, gender and generations. Her powerful message to jazz musicians that true modernism is in the understanding, accepting, acknowledging and embracing of the entirety of the culture; not dismissing, deleting or wishing it away, is as bold and transcending as her life’s work. As journalists, it is this same message… this foundation… that will keep us honest, and tell it like it truly is, and that, says Allen, just like the blues, “is something that never goes out of style.”
Don’t miss Geri Allen performing the music of A Child Is Born at Bethany Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, December 17th. Concert is FREE. Visit her website for more information. Additionally, partial proceeds from this recording go to the YMWCA of Newark and Vicinity, who, in association with Bethany, provide quality programs for children and families throughout the community, with emphasis on those in crisis.