Mary Lou Williams

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.

Mary Lou Williams Centennial Is May 8

This weekend marks 100 years since the birth in Atlanta of Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), one of the greatest musicians and first women in jazz. Creative, profound, productive from her teens in Kansas City through her teaching at Duke University, her life inspired Duke Ellington to write “Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like Soul on Soul.”

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Photo courtesy Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers Newark

The Institute of Jazz Studies website is your quickest way to learn about her, just a click away. The online exhibit is thorough and beautifully done. Plan to spend at least 15 minutes with this multimedia biography. It comes from material in the Mary Lou Williams Collection (she was a saver and left everything to the IJS).

This Sunday at 6pm, JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater features MLW in performances from more than 30 years ago, as she rocked the houses at the Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin. She tells and plays the history of jazz from spirituals through ragtime, blues, the “swingin left hand” a/k/a stride, and modern sounds. Only MLW could say "This music doesn't have anything to do with New Orleans or Africa. It's American music." And then she chuckles. Ronnie Boykins (1935-1980, veteran of the Sun Ra Arkestra) is on bass, Charli Persip on drums. (At Jazz Standard Tues night, when Mulgrew Miller played “Ev'ry Day I Have the Blues,” he paralleled MLW's Basie-like treatment of “Bag’s Groove” that closes the JazzSet.) Rebroadcast Wednesday at 6:30 or on demand any time.


<!--more-->10 05 06 MLW lioness29Here in New York to mark the centennial, Dizzy’s Club at JALC is presenting the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra with guests Kenny Barron and, over the weekend, Lew Tabackin in Music of MLW. Sounds like a must-see.

A major centennial event is a performance of Mary Lou’s Mass, her long form, religious composition. WBGO's Rob Crocker is MC. The modest ticket price ($20) goes to help people in trouble (which also happens to be the name of one of the movements of the piece). Here is an excerpt from the press release:
The newly restored Church of St. Francis Xavier and the Mary Lou Williams Foundation will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the First Lady of Jazz with a concert to benefit Xavier Mission outreach programs including the homeless shelter and soup kitchen. The celebration takes place on Saturday, May 8, 2010 at 7:30pm. The lineup will include the renowned jazz accompanist Aaron Diehl with his trio of special guest Victor Goines on saxophone and clarinet, Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Marion Felder on drums; Laurel Massé, founding member of the vocal group Manhattan Transfer and a 40-voice choir directed by John Uehlein, Music Director at the Church of St. Francis Xavier.
Advance tickets ($40 Premium, $20 General, $10 Student with ID) may be purchased at a reduced rate online at Tickets will also be available at the door that evening.

(Fr O'Brien was MLW's manager for the last decade, directs the MLW Foundation, and is encyclopedic on her career and milieu.)

In Boston,
The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra with Special Guest Geri Allen, pianist, and Father Peter F. O’Brien, guest narrator, present a Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration: From Swing to Sacred Music, a Journey of Faith on Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 8pm at Boston College, Robsham Theatre, 140 Commonwealth Avenue, Chestnut Hill, MA. Box Office: 617-552-4002 Information: 617-776-8778

Alvin Ailey choreographed Mary Lou’s Mass, and the Ailey dancers will perform it at BAM in Brooklyn in July. In the “Ailey Spirit” program, BAM audiences will be the first in 35 years to see Ailey’s joyous ballet Mary Lou’s Mass. This new production coincides with the centennial celebration of jazz pioneer Mary Lou Williams, whose music inspired a work “perfect for Ailey” that is “a celebration of life, jazz and gospel” (The New York Times).
Jun 10, 15, 18 & 19 at 7:30pm .. Jun 13 & 20 at 3pm ..

The 15th annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival takes place at the Kennedy Center from May 20-22, featuring Howard University's jazz vocal ensemble, Afro Blue, opens each night's concert with a Williams vocal work arranged by Howard University's own Connaitre Miller, Afro Blue Music Director.

The opening night concert on Thursday, May 20, features an extended performance by an all-star quintet of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding and Grace Kelly, plus a set by 2009 Women in Jazz Competition–winning pianist Carmen Staaf.

On Friday, May 21, vocalist Catherine Russell returns to the Terrace Theater. Plus, Kennedy Center big band favorite Sherrie Maricle and DIVA take on some of Williams' heartiest charts.

On Saturday, May 22, California-based Ann Patterson's Maiden Voyage big band performs several charts arranged by Mary Lou Williams for the Ellington Orchestra. Saxophonist Virginia Mayhew returns to the Festival with a small ensemble salute to the divine Ms. Williams. The climax is the Mary Lou Williams Collective with pianist Geri Allen, Music Director, vocalist Carmen Lundy, and Afro Blue performing Mary Lou's Mass.

In Madison, WI, a full weekend festival is planned in October. (Music from MLW's 1976 residency at UW is featured on the JazzSet. She made an impression, still revered in that city 34 years later.) More is at

MLW was teaching at Duke University when she died. Today the African-American student center is named for her. The website shows no events in her honor, but bears this celebratory headline: “The Mary Lou is hiring new student positions.”

Mary Lou grew up in Pittsburgh. WDUQ offers this feature:

If you know something else that’s going on, please add to the list!