Madison Wisconsin

Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebrations Rise Again!

Mary Lou Williams Centennial CelebrationI'm just back from the Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration in Madison, WI (where I lived from 1969-82). Mary Lou was briefly an Artist-in-Residence at UW Madison in 1976. Meeting/interviewing her then and immersing myself in her residency put me on my track. Thirty-some years later, it was my honor to participate in this celebration. Madison, by the way, remains one of the all-time hospitable cities - centered on an isthmus between two beautiful lakes - and the home of a dedicated jazz community.

From Fri through Sun, Howard Landsman and his committee hosted events around town, featuring the UW Hiphop Ensemble, The Music of Mary Lou Wms from 1929-78 presented by her mgr and the Director of the MLW Foundation - Fr Peter O'Brien, and a symposium with Profs Sherrie Tucker, Guy Ramsey, Ted Buehrer and Farrah Griffin. Both MLW biographers - Linda Dahl and Dr. Tammy Kernodle - were in town. On Saturday night at the Capitol Theater, the MLW Collective featuring Madison Poet Laureate Fabu, the magnificent Geri Allen on piano, Kenny Davis on bass, Kassa Overall (the nephew of the current WI Gov and his wife!) on drums, and guest vocalist Carmen Lundy. Everyone was great and all hail Geri. In the first half they presented MLW's Zodiac Suite from the 1940s, but what I loved most was "Peter's Blues" in the second half, animated by Geri's elbows.

On Sunday morning 8am at Mt Zion Baptist Church, the awesome Leotha Stanley (a committee member) conducted Mary Lou's Mass - a Catholic mass in a Baptist church. After briefly noting that slight mismatch, Stanley launched the choir into an excellent performance, not one bit less stunning than the celebratory May 2010 pfmnces at St. Francis Xavier in Greenwich Village and The Kennedy Center. WOW. Carmen Lundy's singing of the Lazarus story makes time stop for me. Professor George Shirley from the U of MI was the baritone soloist. Sitting in the balcony of this med sized, straightforward sanctuary and facing the choir and a single, modern stained glass window behind it, I had a slightly elevated perspective and felt the joy rising.

Prof Jimmy Cheatham of the UW Experimental Black Music Ensemble (1972-77) brought MLW to campus in '76. He has passed away, but his wife Jeannie Cheatham came from San Diego to enjoy and be honored by the City of Madison. On Sat night, some of the musicians (older now, like me) gathered to jam in Jimmy and Jeannie's honor. (That link leads you to the Jimmy & Jeannie Cheatham Collection, now online from the Marr Sound Archive at  Univ of Missouri in Kansas City.) It was small with a lot of love. You could not ask for more.