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Learning from a legend

By John Lofy

The Stearns Building, located on a far corner of U-M’s north campus, is so bland-looking and out of the way that the first time I went searching for it, even some students who live nearby couldn’t tell me where it was. But the building is home to one of U-M’s crown jewels: the School of Music, Theatre and Dance’s department of jazz and improvisation studies.

I’d come here on a dreary March evening; freezing rain washed down in torrents, and most of the Ann Arbor was hunkered indoors, watching the Michigan basketball team play Duke in the NCAA tournament. As I drove around, lost, I started wishing I was among them. When I finally found the building, the scene could hardly have been more different from the televised hype of March Madness. In a performance space about the size of a suburban basement, a couple dozen student musicians were performing for one another, and for a crucial person: their teacher and mentor, Geri Allen.

“A living legend,” in the words of one of her students, Geri Allen (photo above) is widely recognized as one of the world’s great jazz pianists. Besides being an associate professor at U-M, she’s a Guggenheim Fellowship winner, owner of the keys to the cities of Detroit and Cambridge and nominated for the NAACP Image Award. Her 2010 album “Flying Toward the Sound” was ranked in the year’s top ten by NPR, and she was nominated by the Association of Jazz Journalists for Best Pianist of 2011. She’s toured Europe as a soloist and performed alongside musical titans such as Jessye Norman, Betty Carter, Ornette Coleman and Dave Holland.

Jazz is the great homegrown American art form, but few jazz musicians become household names. As a casual fan, I had never heard of Geri Allen before I saw her perform at the Michigan Theater in 2003, accompanying the great saxophonist Charles Lloyd. I hadn’t given a thought to who’d be in Lloyd’s band, but even though I’d gone to see him, it was Allen who seized my attention.

She performed as if she were not just navigating through a storm at sea—but as if she were the storm itself. Thundering up the keyboard, practically leaping off the bench at times, she played swinging rhythms that suddenly swerved into chaos but always maintained a fierce precision. The combination of wildness and control seemed to be the very definition of jazz, and even an untrained listener like me could hear her restless intelligence.

Now, Allen had invited me to this “piano salon.” Inspired by a tradition of pianist Mary Lou Williams, who gathered some of the greatest pianists of the age (including Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Allen’s mentor Billy Taylor) to play for one another at her home, Allen hosts these salons two or three times each semester. Her students—not just pianists but performers on all jazz instruments—perform solo or in combos.

Allen wore her hair in thin, shoulder-length dreadlocks; her clothes were calmly stylish. Her smile, open and even girlish, was balanced by an unwavering gaze that was easy to imagine piercing the conscience of a student who hadn’t practiced enough. She greeted me, then put me to work giving her students advice about handling interviews.

Lesson one about Geri Allen: she reflexively tries to help her students—and she tends to deflect attention from herself.

When we did sit down to talk, she kept giving credit to her mentors, teachers, and fellow musicians. Unlike some jazz musicians, who deserve their reputation for hogging the spotlight with their solos, she praised her colleagues again and again for building Michigan’s jazz program, which boasts some 14 faculty members. And while I first expected this story to be a simple profile of a great artist, it quickly turned into something else.

“That’s how you start”

Geri Allen started playing piano at age seven. Born in Pontiac, Michigan, she attended Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, where she studied with Marilyn Jones, a U-M alumna who became her mentor. She graduated from Howard University (where she later joined the faculty and was named Distinguished Professor) and earned a master’s in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. Her mentors, Billy Taylor, Marcus Belgrave (who introduced her to Detroit’s illustrious piano tradition) and Donald Walden, were musicians’ musicians. Allen’s influences are many and varied, from the old-time “two-fisted” style of Mary Lou Williams and stride piano players to experimenters like Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock.

The feeling you get, spending any time at all with Allen, is that she is not simply part of the jazz world, she’s living in the center of it. Her mentors played with greats like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and she is a fixture on the New York scene, spending as much time there as in Michigan, and she seems to have performed with every significant jazz musician of the last half century.

Given her accomplishments, her teaching resume, and her connections to Detroit and New York, Allen was an obvious candidate for U-M’s faculty. But it turned out that the best match was a philosophical one.

Professor Ed Sarath created U-M’s jazz department and served as its first chair, and, along with other faculty members and current chair Ellen Rowe, articulated its basic mission: “to embrace both tradition and exploration, which have always been the two pillars of jazz,” as Rowe puts it. You’d be hard pressed to find a musician more committed to jazz history than Allen.

That commitment became apparent when, early in our conversation, Allen said that her role as teacher “is to help the students find their own voices.”

“Finding one’s voice,” though, has become something of a Hollywood cliché. Fearing a vague, New-Agey reply, I asked her how she could help students accomplish such a thing. The answer surprised me.

“We go into the tradition of the music,” she said. “And we study the evolution of the piano. That’s the most direct way to go into the core of how everyone else learned, which is by imitating. That’s how you start.”

She is, in short, perfectly attuned to Sarath’s vision of a department that combines the best of jazz heritage and innovation. When she was offered a faculty position 2004, she took it.

Ritual labor

First up at the piano salon was Michael Malis (photo below), a senior double-majoring in jazz performance and English, who performed a heady, complex composition of his own. Unassuming, bespectacled, with dark hair and goatee, he’d told me earlier that the prospect of learning from Geri Allen was “probably the main reason” he enrolled at U-M.

Even before coming to Ann Arbor, Malis was among scores of kids inspired and taught through the jazz department’s outreach program. Students and faculty members alike volunteer to mentor young people in the Detroit area. Malis met some of Allen’s teachers this way, and her reputation permeated the Detroit jazz world.

In one-on-one lessons, Allen gave Malis invaluable advice. “She said to me—this has always stuck with me—’You need to learn how to phrase on the piano the way that Sarah Vaughn sings.’ That opened so many doors for me,” he said.

But she had not always been easy on him. “She’s hit me really, really hard” with her criticism, Malis said. “I can’t remember specific things she said, but it felt like, ‘I don’t know who you are and what you know, but it’s not much.'”

And yet, he added, “If I needed anything, I could ask her. She’s a giving, loving person. I’ve had lessons go two, two-and-a-half hours. She won’t stop until she knows you got it.”

Even for Allen, learning to play required endless hours of work. “I just remember, as a younger player myself,” she said, “being frustrated not being able to negotiate through chord changes.” Billy Taylor and Donald Walden taught her the core of what Malis now calls “Professor Allen’s ritual warm-up.” That ritual remains the heart of her own daily practice, and she teaches it to her students.

Malis explained it to me. He practices every day, usually for three or four hours at a stretch. For the first 15 or 20 minutes he simply improvises, not worrying if he sounds good or even if he’s staying in the proper key. Much of what he plays is junk, but some is gold: “A lot of my ideas for my own compositions come from that improvisation.”

He follows that up with rigorous scales and arpeggios, playing, for instance, just one key “as many ways as possible”—building not just the capacity of his fingers and hands but his knowledge of musical structure.

This combination of free improvisation and disciplined technical exercises both loosens the students’ musical imaginations, and builds the skill to play what they want.

After years of hard work, Malis was on the cusp of graduating, ready to embark on a career as a professional musician. He was already playing in several combos, writing songs and even a film score.

This, too, was part of the jazz program’s plan: simply playing well is not enough. Allen wants her students to go pro, and she gets them started while they’re still in school. Every one of her students plays in “real” groups, and she pushes them to join the scene and meet the working musicians who keep jazz going in Detroit. Combine the jazz department’s outreach to high schoolers with its emphasis on building a successful careers, and it starts to look like the program’s investment extends way beyond students’ time on campus.

“Like riding a bicycle”

Now, at the salon, he finished his solo tune, and the next student came up to the piano. Most of the students were performing “transcriptions”—note-for-note recreations of jazz standards and iconic performances. This was another tool of Allen’s. The idea was for the students to learn jazz history—not just in an academic way, but to build it into their bodies, embedding it deep in their muscle memory. One student played and sang a Bessie Smith piece; another, Glenn Tucker, threw down a thrilling version of a Don Pullen performance, at times literally hammering the piano with his fists.

Some of the students played songs they’d written themselves, but even they shared Allen’s embrace of history. Vincent Arvel Chandler, a graduate student trombonist so gifted that Allen had invited him to play in her band at the Apollo Theater, introduced a song he’d written by saying, “Professor Allen made me realize that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are all these young cats who want to be so original without knowing the history of the music. It’s like when someone comes into a room where you’ve been having a conversation, and the new person wants to give their opinion without waiting to listen to what’s being said already.”

Allen stepped up after each performance, giving tips. She pushed them on the fundamentals, telling Tucker, for instance, that even when he was pounding the piano, keeping his rhythm steady was crucial, and would give the music more weight, more seriousness. “Glenn,” she said, snapping her fingers in metronome-perfect rhythm, “you have your freedom, within the discipline of time.”

I wondered about the transcriptions. Allen’s practice ritual makes obvious sense, and I could see the virtue of learning jazz history, but when students performed re-creations of old performances, wasn’t there a danger they’d learn mere mimicry? Style over substance? I asked Malis for his take.

He told me about a transcription he’d just completed: a cover of Bud Powell’s rendition of the Thelonius Monk standard “‘Round Midnight.” Malis had listened to Powell’s recording and watched it on video over and over, then copied the performance note for note. But after he learned the song by heart, he started to tinker with it, take it apart. “I was reworking it, taking it to new places. How many ways can you play it, or not play it?”

“This is how you start to develop your own sound,” he said. “When you take a two-bar phrase by Monk, say, and you take it apart and change it, it’s no longer Monk. It’s yours. Not that it didn’t come from Monk. You’re building on the shoulders of the past. You’re in a conversation” with the jazz legacy.

“It’s so exciting when you see these breakthroughs happen,” Allen told me, flashing an enormous smile. “It’s like riding a bicycle: all of a sudden, you’re balancing and you’re riding!”

Watching her at the salon, I think I understood why Allen seemed reluctant to let this story focus exclusively on her. Any teacher knows the gratification of seeing students succeed. How much more so, then, when a student’s understanding means the survival of the tradition, and history, that you love.

So much of America’s cultural heritage lives outside the klieg lights of television. It’s a standard-issue complaint that our arts, from books to jazz to the symphony, are dying. But even if an art like jazz is all but invisible on TV doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s very much alive, thriving in clubs and classrooms, passed on from master to student, keepers of a tradition stretching back through Geri Allen to Thelonius Monk to Duke Ellington and deep into the past.

The salon came to an end four hours after it had begun. Outside, the rain had stopped and puddles were freezing over. The Michigan-Duke game had long-since ended; U-M lost, but its talented players had turned themselves into minor celebrities with their play.

Allen said her goodbyes and departed for the airport; she had a performance in Italy.

The jazz students packed up their stuff and bundled into jackets. Some were heading home, but others had more gigs of their own in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti or Detroit. They hunkered against the cold, holding their music to their chests as if carrying a secret treasure.

John Lofy is editor of Michigan Today.