Currently on display at the Duke University Museum of Art, Mary Lou Williams: In Her Own Right gathers the artifacts from the life of another master. Williams, the late pianist-composer who served as a Duke artist-in-residence from 1977 to '81, has inspired thousands of musicians, but particularly those female instrumentalists who perform jazz, a music still brimming with old-school chauvinism. To Geri Allen, one of the most original-sounding pianists on the scene today, Williams was the supreme role model.
"Mary Lou was not only a pervasive influence upon me," Allen explained over the phone last week, "but on everyone who loves creative music. I've heard stories about her personal strength, and they inspire me."
On Saturday, Allen will conjure up the formidable spirit of Williams. She'll reprise selections from Williams' multi-faced Zodiac Suite accompanied by her rollicking band, the brother-to-brother bass-drums juggernaut of Billy and Mark Johnson.
When Allen dives into the piano at Nelson Music Room, she'll recall the elusive muse of Williams not by easy imitation, but by doing her thing. Unlike Williams, who fingered a seamless flow of swing, Allen is a frenetic improviser, cat-dancing swiftly over the keys from idea to idea. Characterized by ear-bending turnarounds, Allen's often jaunty compositions chatter with montage-like intensity. You don't necessarily hear the sample-and-burn beats of the Hip Hop Nation within Allen's tunes, but there's the same technique of sound-next-to-divergent-sound. Like any accomplished DJ, Allen is a master of creative juxtaposition.
"It wasn't until I moved to New York City that I felt a sense of division between musics," says the 43-year-old pianist. "The idea that some music was better than another," Allen sniffs, "now that's something I still reject."
"I try to approach any music I play recognizing the continuum of all the African-American musics, whether it be Sly or Motown or the music of the Caribbean," the pianist explained in a 1994 Independent interview. "However old it is, however new it is, there's a line that runs through all of it that has to do with my African heritage."
Allen also embraces the sonic tradition of her hometown, Detroit, a hard-scrabble city with a proud and storied history. Long before the ascent of Berry Gordy's popular Motown 45s during the '60s, Detroit was a cauldron of bebop. The bustling scene birthed a significant cadre of hot-handed improvisers, particularly world-class pianists like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan. Allen is not only aware of their legacy, but of virtually every musician with a Detroit pedigree.
"Yes," Allen confirms, "we check up on each other from time to time." She recalls one star-crossed night in California seven years ago. "Stevie Wonder came down to our gig. Isn't that something? I heard this voice coming from my right, a sound so familiar it made me feel all of a sudden comfortable. It's like going home for me when I hear him sing.
"It was an unbelievable experience," she adds, describing how her trio cooked up an ad hoc version of Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" with the composer seated behind the 88s. "I was so proud of my band," Allen gushes.
In Durham, Allen's combo will churn with the same high-minded intensity that earned her the famous Danish JAZZPAR award in 1996. One of the most esteemed honors in the world of jazz, Allen was the first woman to receive the statuette. No doubt the JAZZPAR judges sampled her spangled discography. Allen's resume boasts a variety of bustling CDs--from all-star trios (21, with Miles Davis' former rhythm section members, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams) to elaborate ensemble-sessions (The Nurturer, featuring trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, her Detroit mentor). For two decades she's recorded with the most prestigious jazz labels in the world, including the Italian Black Saint/Soul Note imprint and American majors like Blue Note and Verve.
Yet, confoundingly, the most promising jazz pianist of the 1990s is currently without a record contract. When asked why, she cited the recent takeover of Verve by the giant Universal Music conglomerate. Many prominent musicians were sliced from the label's roster, including Allen, who had produced only one CD for the company.
"This is a critical time for our music," sighs the pianist, "and I'm not sure it's the best time for me and other musicians who want to push forward. Right now, the recording industry is enthusiastic about a certain type of thing." Allen points out the popular success of accessible singers like Diana Krall without bitterness, but with a certain resignation.
She waxes on. "The music that I play reflects a certain tradition--and I'm proud of that history. But I'm also very much about what is new."
In the commercial marketplace, such is the fate of today's sonic trailblazers like Allen--as well as another restless pianist from another time. "That's what I absolutely admire about Mary Lou," says Allen, steering the conversation back to Williams. "Her sound transcended all eras. She was always contemporary, incorporating new sounds into her music throughout her life until the very end."
So on Saturday night, what better way for Allen to raise a glass to Williams than by playing something fresh. From some angelic throne in the afterlife, Williams will no doubt be grinning as she sips from Allen's cup of originality.
"Pass it on, sister," Williams might whisper. "Pass it on."