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Geri Allen, Pianist, Composer And Educator, Dies At 60

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Geri Allen, Pianist, Composer And Educator, Dies At 60

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Geri Allen, Pianist, Composer And Educator, Dies At 60

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Pianist Geri Allen was a mainstay on the jazz scene for more than 30 years. She collaborated with Ornette Coleman, Betty Carter, Charles Lloyd, Steve Coleman and many, many others. Allen was a native of Detroit who loved Motown as much as bebop. She died yesterday afternoon of complications from cancer. She was 60 years old. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has this remembrance.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Geri Allen was very much a child of the Motor City. She was born in Pontiac, Mich., but her parents moved the family to Detroit when she was very young. She studied classical piano as a child. But her father loved jazz, and she grew up listening to his records, as she told NPR in 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GERI ALLEN: I remember as a child hearing the music around the house. I could tell the music was truly loved. All of that has to have affected me as a player. I think by the time I was in high school I was certain that I wanted to be a jazz musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: As a teenager, Geri Allen was mentored by a Detroit legend, the late trumpet and flugelhorn player Marcus Belgrave. He nurtured generations of jazz talent in the Motor City. But as Belgrave told NPR in 1995, Allen was shy at first and rattled by some of the other male students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARCUS BELGRAVE: The first thing I asked her to do was to write a piece for these young gentlemen that were intimidating her. And she came back with a piece that intimidated me.

TSIOULCAS: Belgrave thought Geri Allen was so good that he invited her to tour Europe with his band while she was still in high school. She went on to get a degree in jazz studies from Howard University and a master's in ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. And she paid that forward, teaching the next generation of jazz musicians at several universities. All the while, she kept up her recording career, playing on over a hundred albums as a bandleader and side player.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERI ALLEN, CHARLIE HADEN AND PAUL MOTIAN'S "LONELY WOMAN")

TSIOULCAS: Geri Allen found a way to meld the avant garde with Motown. One of her first professional jobs was playing with Mary Wilson of the Supremes. It's a connection she celebrated on her 2013 album "Grand River Crossings."

(SOUNDBITE OF GERI ALLEN'S "WANNA BE STARTIN' SOMETHIN'")

TSIOULCAS: But at the root of it all was the love of jazz that was born in her childhood home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALLEN: It was a very, very prideful and still is a very prideful thing for me to be a jazz musician because of the legacy. You travel around the world and you have a real clear sense that everyone understands the legacy of this music and the fact that it is definitely one of the most revered and respected musics in the world. And I'm very proud to have a little part in that somehow.

TSIOULCAS: She was more than a little part of it. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERI ALLEN'S "YOUR PURE SELF - MOTHER TO SON")

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