Jazz: She swings like a mother

Geri Allen is a jazz pianist at the top of her profession, but she's not the first woman to get there.
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Music inspired by conjugal love, happy families and the joys of motherhood must figure somewhere in the jazz tradition, but it has to struggle for space against the doomy legends of tom-catting trumpeters, strung-out saxophonists and female singers with a serial-spouse problem.

"I think there certainly have been romantic attachments to those kind of tragic stories, and that is valid," says the American pianist and composer Geri Allen, whose new album, The Gathering (Verve), is dedicated to exactly the kind of rootedness to family ties that tends to get erased from the history books. "It's part of our heritage and I wouldn't try to belittle it, but personally I feel I have the individual right to tell my story, and I do. This record is inspired by my family, my mother and my grandmother. I guess all of us have these memories of loved ones, and it's my way of celebrating that experience."

As Allen talks in her London hotel room, her husband Wallace Roney (who is a trumpeter himself), looks after their three children: Leila, eight, Wallace, two, and the three-and-a-half-month-old baby, Barbara. Allen, who is 41, is not just any jazz pianist. She is perhaps the leading figure on her instrument today.

But unlike that of many of her peers, her music goes beyond surface flash and filigree: it's deep, way deep. Previous albums, such as The Nurturer and Maroons (both on Blue Note) are mini-suites full of closely textured themes that often relate to particular issues of history and culture. Happily, she also swings like the clappers, and has played with musicians as diverse as Mary Wilson of the Supremes (whose band she joined when she first came to New York from Detroit), and Ornette Coleman, who doesn't suffer pianists gladly. She also has a master's degree in ethnomusicology (with a thesis on Eric Dolphy), and has written a play about the pioneering jazz pianist Lil Hardin, who sacrificed her career to that of her husband, Louis Armstrong. In Robert Altman's film Kansas City, Allen played the role of another jazz piano pioneer, Mary Lou Williams.

"There is a really strong legacy of great female piano players, and women have played really important parts in the history of the music," Allen says, warming to her subject and exhibiting that sense of connectedness with long dead figures that still animates black American musicians.

"Lovie Austin influenced Fats Waller, who heard her in a movie theatre accompanying a silent film, and that started him off wanting to play himself. But for me the issue of Lil Hardin in Louis Armstrong's Hot Five is an important one. She was the first piano player in the first major group in jazz, and that's a big hole left undiscovered; scholars should be eating at that.

"Why has no one looked at this, at Lil Hardin before Earl Hines took her place and before he was given the title of the father of modern jazz? No disrespect to Hines, but Lil Hardin introduced the technique of stabbing with the left hand instead of just playing stride - comping like Bud Powell - and she may well have introduced Hines [to the technique]." Her concern not to offend "Father" Hines, who died in 1983, is solicitous, as if he were in the room with her, and helping himself at the mini-bar.

"My play, which is really a work in progress," she goes on, "is about episodes of Hardin's life and what she had to go through, the ill fortune of not being able to reap the benefits of what she had sown, and the inherent sexism of those days. She had to put her career behind her and for a long time she worked as a seamstress, though she came back to music at the end of her life. In some ways she sacrificed herself for Louis Armstrong. She made it possible for him to succeed, and pushed him forward."

Of Mary Lou Williams, who wrote arrangements for, and for a time led, the great Andy Kirk Band in Kansas City in the Thirties, Allen is equally forthright. "Mary Lou Williams was pre-dating Monk and many of the bebop players. She said that she was playing bebop when Charlie Parker was still in short pants!

"She has never been given the respect she deserves and her treatment in the histories does not reflect the esteem that musicians held her in. `Hackensack' [credited to Thelonious Monk] was Mary Lou's song. No disrespect to Monk, but they were her melodies." The shade of Monk (he died in 1982) nods his approval from the sofa.

Reflecting on her own career, and the problems of sexism and racism that affect black female performers in jazz, Allen is sanguine. "Well, I'm pretty sure that lots of the things those women went through I didn't have to go through, just as I didn't have to go through what my parents and grandparents went through. It's not as if it doesn't exist any more, but when you get to a certain level the greatest musicians are usually beyond that, and if someone crosses gender lines, yet they have something to offer, they are made welcome. It's more the lesser musicians, who are insecure, who remain a problem."

The new album, which calls upon various permutations of the same group of musicians, including her husband Roney, the guitarist Vernon Reid and the drummer Lenny White - whose wonderfully fluid rhythms often seem to aspire to the condition of drum'n'bass - is both very deep and very good. When Allen comes to play at the QEH as part of the Oris London Jazz Festival on Tuesday week, however, she will be leading a trio, and not the larger group from the album.

"I don't want to say it's just money," she says, but basically, it is. Lack of financial backing may well, it seems, be the biggest inequality of them all.

`The Gathering' by Geri Allen is on Verve. Geri Allen plays the Oris London Jazz Festival on Tuesday, 10 November. The festival runs from 6- 15 November. Hotline: 0171-405 5974