Geri Allen.

This weekend’s festival in honor of jazz pianist Geri Allen, pictured above, includes two free concerts.

Joey Libby/Office for the Arts

Arts & Culture

Remembering a jazz great

Vijay Iyer and Esperanza Spalding headline festival in honor of pianist Geri Allen

4 min read

Vijay Iyer was supposed to begin the year in concert with Geri Allen in San Francisco. But after the jazz pianist and composer died in June, at 60, Iyer was forced to consider a different kind of performance, a memorial celebration of her creative genius.

“She gave me a sense of how I might find my own voice, of being an artist,” said Iyer, who will co-host a weekend tribute to Allen at Harvard. “The choices she made as an artist, composer, improviser were fresh and innovative. The details of her musical language were very important, and they weren’t like anyone else.”

Some of the biggest names in jazz will convene for “Timeless Portraits and Dreams,” which is co-sponsored by the Jazz Research Initiative at the Hutchins Center and the Harvard University Committee on the Arts. Iyer, the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts, will be joined over the weekend by faculty members Ingrid Monson, Esperanza Spalding, and Yosvany Terry, as well as Kris Davis, Craig Taborn, Jason Moran, Terri Lyne Carrington, Tia Fuller, Carmen Lundy, Oliver Lake, and Don Byron.

“It’s not just that she was a great artist, she was a great researcher,” Iyer said. “She was organizing a lot of new initiatives in musicology. She was important to the field, to the arts and humanities, in a way that we can try to carry forward.”

The slate for the festival is filled with music and conversation. Iyer will moderate a roundtable discussion with Davis, Moran, and Taborn on Friday, with a performance to follow in the evening. On Saturday, Monson will moderate panels on Allen as a scholar and on her place in musical history. Photographer Carrie Mae Weems will discuss her work with Allen in a conversation with Carrington and Spalding. Carrington has also included a concert featuring Spalding, Lundy, Lake, and others.

Bassist and singer Spalding, who joined Harvard’s Music Department last year, played in the trio ACS with Allen and Carrington for seven years. Her deep musical connection with Allen was based on shared language, she said.

“She occupies such a giant territory in my heart and a visceral relationship to the art form. I have a hard time reducing it down into sentences,” Spalding said.

“Geri came off as very shy, but she wasn’t. She was just highly observant, and very focused. I had this quieting sense of reverence of her. I’d say something silly or quirky, and she was right there ready to play. In a way it was a reflection of her musical spirit, too — she came off as mysterious and quiet, but as soon as you started making sound, she was right there on the playground.”

Vijay Iyer is co-hosting this weekend’s tribute to Geri Allen at Harvard.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

“It’s not just that she was a great artist, she was a great researcher. She was organizing a lot of new initiatives in musicology. She was important to the field, to the arts and humanities, in a way that we can try to carry forward.”

Vijay Iyer

Carrington, a Grammy-winning drummer, was 14 when she met Allen, and played with her in several groups across more than three decades. Theirs was a sisterly relationship that developed a musical sound merging traditional jazz with more experimental ways of playing, she said.

“I was in awe of the music she made and her creative process. Her work ethic was amazing; she worked tirelessly. She recorded so many projects involving different themes. To me it never sounded like she just made a record. It all had meaning.

“Whatever ideas we came up with, Geri was the person who wanted to take them a step further,” Carrington added. “She wasn’t satisfied until many ideas and possibilities had been fully explored.”

Music will be the centerpiece of the festival, but stories about Allen’s generosity off-stage will also be part of the conversation. Iyer remembers her driving him home after gigs and giving him a drum kit that he still has.

“She’s universally loved and adored,” he said. “Her music and spirit are cherished. Whether it’s fellow pianists or anyone who had the chance to study with her, there’s no end of good will for Geri.”