Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates Mary Lou Williams Centennial

Mary Lou Williams image 0
James Kriegsmann

Mary Lou Williams

Although her 100th birthday doesn’t roll around until this coming May, the folks at Jazz at Lincoln Center are getting started early in their celebration of her centennial. Beginning in November, the House that Wynton Built is paying tribute to the legendary pianist with a wide-ranging set of events from concerts to classes and even an “Are You the Next Mary Lou Williams?” contest.

Things kick off on November 6 and 7 with a Jazz for Young People program called “Who Is Mary Lou Williams?” hosted by Marsalis and the [email protected] Orchestra. A week later Marsalis and the orchestra return, along with special guests pianists Geri Allen and Geoffrey Keezer in a concert celebration of the Williams’ 100th birthday. Those performances take place on Friday, November 13 and Saturday, November 14 at Rose Hall.

Perhaps the most unusual twist is a contest with the awkward title of “Are You the Next Mary Lou Williams?” Although an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to all the reality shows cluttering our television channels these days, the title begs the question of how or why there will be another Ms. Williams, a singular artist and person. Williams had a life and career that cannot easily be compared to any other jazz artist and it’s hard to imagine her participating in a contest when she was a youngster to be, say, the next James P. Johnson or Count Basie. No matter, female pianists of this century, age 15 or under, are encouraged to submit a video of a selected Williams’ tune, for a chance to perform with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis as part of the aforementioned Jazz for Young People concert, “Who is Mary Lou Williams?” Deadline for submissions is October 14, 2009. For more information, visit the Jazz at Lincoln Center site.

And there’s more. In January and February, Mary Lou Williams’ manager and spiritual guide later in life, Father Peter O’Brien, will teach a Swing University course about Williams’ life and music. Finally, the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band program will be distributing up to 4,500 charts of newly published Mary Lou Williams’ music to high schools across North America. These charts include “New Musical Express,” “Roll ‘Em” and “Walkin’ and Swingin’.” The program will culminate in the annual Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival on Williams’ birthday, May 8, 2010.

Kudos to artistic director Marsalis and his associates for their efforts at bringing attention to this often overlooked giant of the jazz piano. For those who can’t make it to any of these festivities, we highly recommend Linda Dahl’s interesting book about Williams, Morning Glory, A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, excerpted in the March 2000 issue of JT.