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Pitt Jazz Seminar builds on 43-year history

| Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh Geri Allen
University of Michigan Photo Services
Director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh Geri Allen

Sometimes, the road to the future has been blazed by the pioneers of the past.

Pianist Geri Allen seems to understand that reality as she shapes her first jazz seminar and concert in her role as new head of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I want to use as a blueprint the successful event Nathan has shaped,” she says, referring to her predecessor, Nathan Davis, who put together this 43-year-old annual event. “I just want to follow in his lead.”

Putting together and participating in this seminar is, in a sense, Allen's introduction to her work at Pitt, where she will officially start in January. She says she has no clearcut ideas in mind for the academic program right now, but, like her thoughts on the seminar and concert, wants to make sure she is “honoring Nathan's legacy.”

Davis retired from Pitt at the end of June after being there since 1969 and starting the seminar and concert that has featured such jazz legends as saxophonist Sonny Rollins and drummer Art Blakey.

He sounds pleased at Allen's compliments and sends his own.

“She will do a fine job,” he says. “She has all the skills for it.”

This year's event will climax with the concert Nov. 2 at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. Along with Allen, it will feature trumpeters Marcus Belgrave and Randy Brecker, trombonist Vincent Chandler, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Ernie Watts, bassist Kenny Davis, singer Carmen Lundy, guitarist Russell Malone, percussionist Kassa Overall, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and tap percussionist Brinae Ali.

Of course, the seminar also will include its master classes from participants in the William Pitt Student Union Nov. 1 and 2.

For Allen, 56, the chance to return to Pittsburgh was as hard to pass up as an event as talent-laden as the seminar. The Detroit native went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., but came to Pittsburgh to study with Davis and received her master's in ethnomusicology in 1982 from Pitt.

“Pittsburgh is just a great place to be,” she says.

Her performance career has burgeoned since then. She has worked with such stars as bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jack DeJohnette. She also contributed music to a Peabody Prize-winning film and won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008.

As she prepares for the official beginning of her work at Pitt, she is wrapping up her stay teaching at the University of Michigan, continuing her move to Pittsburgh and finishing up her current tour with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding.

But for now, Allen says she is impressed with the beginning of her work at Pitt.

“I really want to thank Pitt for the support they have given me and for the work of the team that helped with the seminar,” she says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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