An email last week from the University of Missouri School of Music had me at the mere mention of an upcoming event centered on Mary Lou Williams, the late, iconic jazz pianist. To say Williams is a seminal figure in modern jazz is, well, beyond an understatement. She’s that important and remains that influential.
At 4 p.m. Thursday, the Middleton Center for Race, Citizenship, and Justice and the School of Music are co-sponsoring the Zoom gathering “Mary Lou Williams: Jazz Composer, Pianist, Activist.” The event features a pair of MU faculty, Stephanie Shonekan and Sam Griffith. (Full disclosure: Griffith is a “We Always Swing” Jazz Series board member.) Members of the MU Concert Jazz Band, who will examine Williams’ music the day before, are also slated to serve on the panel.
Tammy Kernodle, professor of musicology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a long-time “excavator” of Williams’ life on and off the bandstand, and author of "Soul On Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams" serves as the special guest and the panel’s centerpiece.
Covering Williams in 90 minutes is no easy task. She is a revered artist in jazz history — and a prolific one at that; her career spanned decades and she delivered important work as a musician and as a member of the human race assisting those in need.
Along the way, a number of noteworthy artists have interpreted Williams’ music and issued releases in her honor. The impeccable pianist John Hicks issued “Impressions of Mary Lou” (HighNote; 2000); the Dutch Jazz Orchestra researched and played rediscovered works of Williams on “Lady Who Swings The Band” (2005).
Then there is the late masterful pianist Geri Allen who, while an original talent herself, was also somewhat of a Williams devoteé. Leading her Mary Lou Williams Collective, Allen released Williams’ “Zodiac Suite: Revisited” (Mary Records; 2006).
Appropriately enough, Allen also portrayed the pianist in Robert Altman’s jazz-fused 1996 film “Kansas City”; set in 1930s, the director authentically filmed a measurable portion of the film inside Union Station and at venues located on 18th and Vine, attempting to recreate the rough-and-tumble, Prohibition-be-damned jazz epicenter during the city’s wide-open Tom Pendergast Era.
Musician-orchestrated Williams celebrations also include the 2019 two-piano collaboration drummer Allison Miller and bassist Derrick Hodge co-led, “Soul On Soul: A Tribute to Mary Lou Williams.” The two managed some pre-pandemic performances, including one that took place at the Monterey Jazz Festival, which is fortunately available via YouTube.
Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center has produced the female-centric Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival each May since 1996. Only the pandemic forced its cancellation in 2020, and perhaps in 2021 as well. Williams is so important to jazz that, since 2000, the pianist’s papers have been archived at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.
Williams arranged music for everyone from Duke Ellington to Benny Goodman. She became friends with, but also mentored and taught, towering figures such as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. She is, in so many ways, truly the matriarch of jazz piano. Consider she is one of only three women — Maxine Sullivan and Marian McPartland are the other two — featured in the landmark 1958 “A Great Day In Harlem” photograph.
Influenced by the likes of Fats Waller, Williams dazzled audiences and many of her peers with her technical prowess and her presence. Imagine what kind of “glass ceiling” existed when she began to play professionally as a teenager nearly a century ago.
Williams’ career can be clearly bisected. There’s her secular work, and there’s her religious works. A near-child prodigy, she spent important time in the Central Midwest working in so-called “territory bands” that traversed Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and the like. Her peers, colleagues and fellow giants included Parker, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner.
Yet in 1954, performing in Paris, Williams literally walked away from the piano for three years. When she returned, she had converted to Catholicism and would eventually compose a measurable catalog of spiritual and religious works, many of them elongated suites.
It will be interesting, with Kernodle leading the way, to see how the panel handles the wealth and depth of material at their disposal.
“I think we are going to try and cover both sacred and secular because both parts are critical to understanding Williams’ trajectory,” Shonekan said in an email.
Shonkean added that the format is going to be “almost completely Q&A. We will ask Tammy Kernodle for opening comments on ‘the highlights’ of what people should know about Mary Lou Williams. Then Sam [Griffith] and I will interview her and our panelists and look to draw others into the conversation during the Q&A.”
In addition to her scholarly look at Williams, it’s worth noting Kernodle has also been involved with several other Williams-related events, including the aforementioned Kennedy Center activity as well as working with both Jazz at Lincoln Center and American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.
Williams’ place in jazz history was cemented long ago. A number of cities and states seem to claim her as their own, including but not limited to:
Pittsburgh, where a Pennsylvania State Historic Marker sits at Lincoln Elementary School, noting her accomplishments and the school she attended; Durham, North Carolina, where she died and, two years later in 1983, Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture; and, of course, Kansas City, where Mary Lou Williams Lane sits near 10th and Paseo Streets.
| Columbia Daily Tribune
Jon W. Poses is executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.