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Looking for Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams sitting at a piano

As the child of a father who loved jazz, I thought I knew all of the women jazz artists. That is, until I discovered Morning Glory: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, by Linda Dahl. It was 1999, and I was strolling through the Central Library in downtown Madison. I was almost out of the door when I saw a book with a beautiful, dark chocolate face on the cover that drew me to her.

I checked out the book and immediately called my dad. “I have a biography about a Black woman named Mary Lou Williams. She played jazz,” I said, hesitating for a moment. “You never told me about her.”

Dad replied, “Mary Lou, yeaaaa.” Translating his comment, I knew she had to be one of the great ones for my dad to give her a “yeaaaa.” 

From there, I dove headfirst into the world of Mary Lou Williams through words and music. However, it wasn’t until years later, when I joined a group of eclectic, creative artists from Madison to celebrate her 100th birthday with the entire city, that I really felt like I had come to know “the First Lady of Jazz.”

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Due to the history of racism against dark-skinned people in America, the contributions of African Americans are frequently overlooked, and their stories often ignored. This was the reality of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1910, a time when segregation between races was the law and women could not vote, Williams went on to become a leader in a music field dominated by men and in a country dominated by whites. She was a child prodigy who throughout her life played every genre of jazz and wrote for many of the jazz greats, leaving in her wake a long list of “firsts” as an African American jazz performer.

Anyone who claims to know jazz should know Mary Lou Williams. But after reading her biography and immersing myself in her music, I wanted everyone, not just jazz afficionados, to know who Mary Lou Williams was, wanted her to be as well-known now as she was during her time (which was not that long ago). I reasoned that Williams’ career and music should be as famous as those of male jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and even our own Madison bassist and Academy Fellow, Richard Davis. These were men she knew, performed with, and composed music for. In honoring Williams, I felt that I would be honoring all African American women artists who persevered, despite the double barriers of race and gender. It was with these ideas and energy that in 2010 I joined a small committee of people who came together in Madison to help re-introduce Williams to the world. This is the story of that journey.

To start the journey, though, we need to go back to 1976 when this brilliant composer, arranger, and pianist played her way into the hearts of jazz lovers in Madison. Mary Lou Williams was in the city for a performance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison at the invitation of Professor James Cheatham, Director of the Black Music Ensemble at the School of Music. Cheatham, a famous jazz trombonist and teacher, was known for bringing prominent Black artists such as Williams to campus to help infuse authentic jazz into the school’s instructional program. Over the course of three days, Williams shared the history of jazz with the UW–Madison community and performed at the Wisconsin Union Theater, showing her mastery of jazz styles, from Stride to Modern. One performance even included her masterwork, “Mary Lou’s Mass,” which was commissioned in 1970 by the Roman Catholic Church. 

By the time Williams had arrived in Madison, her accomplishments were many: she was the first African American woman to have a weekly radio show, Mary Lou Williams’s Piano Workshop; to start her own record company, Mary Records, and her own publishing company, Cecilia Music Company; and to manage her more than 350 compositions and 100 records. She was also the first African American woman to become a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which recognized her growing fame as the First Lady of Jazz. She became internationally famous after a highly successful European tour in 1954, including an appearance in London where she broke the ban against American artists playing in England. 

Upon returning to the U.S., Williams converted to Catholicism. During this time she founded the Bel Canto Foundation to help addicted musicians and dedicated her life to her faith. But jazz wasn’t done with her, and in the 1960s and 1970s she returned to her craft, weaving together the vocabulary of jazz with elements of rhythm and blues, spirituals, and gospel music to create “Sacred Jazz,”  a new genre pioneered by Williams that melded her strong faith with her equally strong musical talent. In 1964 she met Father Peter O’Brien, a Jesuit, who not only advised her as she composed the Catholic masses, but also became her friend and business manager, even as he continued his priestly assignments.

Her willingness to embrace new genres and modern approaches to the form led to a collaboration with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor and a special two-piano concert at Carnegie Hall in 1977, which they titled Embraced. In 1978, she performed at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. By the end of her life in 1981 at 71, she was still playing shows and passing on her knowledge of jazz to students as an artist in residence at Duke University where she co-taught jazz classes with O’Brien from 1977 to 1981.

Williams left money in her will to start the Mary Lou Williams Foundation to continue her legacy of promoting jazz; Father O’Brien was subsequently appointed director. Yet she and her music somehow slipped into obscurity. Decades later, she was forgotten or totally unknown by most, in spite of the Mary Lou Williams Festival that the foundation began in 1996 as a way of reminding the American public about her devotion to music and her many accomplishments.

•   •   •   •   •

In 2010, the year of Mary Lou Williams’ 100th birthday, the foundation and other groups were encouraging centennial celebrations of William’s music and life across the United States. It seemed to me the perfect occasion for reviving the memory of Williams here in Wisconsin. I began asking for help and advice from local artist friends who might be interested in celebrating Mary Lou Williams and helping plan a one-day Centennial Celebration for all of Madison to enjoy. 

My first call was to jazz pianist and educator Jane Reynolds, whom I had met in 2000 when we teamed up for an Isthmus Jazz Festival event honoring Williams through jazz and poetry. As Reynolds and I talked about others who might join our endeavor, Howard Landsman’s name came up. I didn’t know Landsman, a local fundraiser who had worked with nonprofits, and he didn’t know me. So I emailed him and asked if he would meet me for coffee to discuss a Mary Lou Williams celebration event. As we talked, I soon realized that Landsman was a jazz buff—so much so that he took my idea for a one-day event and suggested we turn it into a year-long event with pieces and components I never could have imagined.

But, even before I started on the Centennial Celebration plans with Landsman, a similar idea was forming in the mind of local newspaper editor Jonathan Gramling of the Capitol City Hues. Gramling had interviewed Father O’Brien during the same 2000 Isthmus Jazz Festival at which Reynolds and I performed. During that interview, Father O’Brien had invited Madison to honor Williams on the occasion of her upcoming centennial year—an invitation Gramling took to heart. Through Landsman, Gramling joined our growing group and became one of our contacts with Father O’Brien. 

Father O’Brien’s involvement was critical to the Centennial Celebration’s success. He gave the committee access to Williams’ music and her archives at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. He also recruited Mary Lou Williams scholars and artists as presenters for a Centennial Celebration symposium, where O’Brien gave his own multi-media presentation, “The Recordings of Mary Lou Williams: A Fifty-Year Retrospective.” His involvement gave the committee the credibility it needed to raise funds for the outstanding series of Centennial Celebration programs.

Our planning committee soon became ten, all local volunteers from different races and occupations who came together to explore the idea of a Mary Lou Williams celebration. The six additional members besides Landsman, Reynolds, Gramling, and me were Steve Braunginn, Leotha Stanley, Larry Lundy, Bobbette Rose, Nancy Kendrick, and Betsy Stampe. Braunginn, a retired CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison and co-host of “Strictly Jazz Sounds” on WORT-FM, was in charge of publicity and promotions along with Gramling. A professional musician, composer, and educator, Leotha Stanley would be managing director of music. The music director at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Stanley already had an established relationship with the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers and so could help secure Williams’ music. The late Larry Lundy was our treasurer and Madison Music Collective representative.

Both Reynolds and I were co-artistic directors. She was also co-host of “Strictly Jazz Sounds” on WORT–FM, and a long time educator and co-presenter of Mary Lou Williams Jazz and Poetry Programs in schools. Graphic designer Bobbette Rose’s role was also publicity and promotions, and Nancy Kendrick worked on program development. Lastly Betsy Stampe, a retired public defender and professional musician, served as an at-large member. My role was to be what I am: a poet. 

In some ways ours was a magical group because, although most of us were strangers to each other, we became a cohesive committee that melded well together. We listened to and respected each other. Each person had an assigned role, but we all turned to Landsman for the unique vision for a year full of activities centered on re-introducing Williams’ jazz. 

We recruited several partner arts and education organizations to help with program development and delivery and, to get the festival off the ground, we donated money personally and helped raise money at fundraising events. We passed out informational flyers at different locations in Madison, such as farmers’ markets and the Juneteenth celebration. Committee meetings were rotated among homes, with most of them taking place at Howard Landsman and his wife Judy’s home. Landsman wrote the successful grants that funded the majority of our activities and was an inspirational guide for over a year that we spent together. 

May 8, 2010, marked the actual 100th birthday of Mary Lou Williams, the date on which special Centennial Celebrations were held in communities around the U.S. In Wisconsin, our mid-sized, predominantly white city of Madison held perhaps the most robust of these celebrations, with 51 special programs, most with free admission, spanning the entire year, from February 2010 to January 2011. Together, these programs reached a diverse audience of over 8,000 people and, in so doing, increased awareness and appreciation of Williams and her jazz . Indeed, Madison’s celebration continues influencing the local jazz scene, helping to trigger a renaissance that is poised to resume after the COVID–19 pandemic.

The Centennial Celebration included a wide-ranging menu of performances of Williams’ music and an array of educational programs about her life, music, and legacy. These included three major concerts of Williams’ music, dance concerts, poetry readings, a scholarly symposium, and documentary films. It culminated in a major Mary Lou Williams Fall Festival Weekend on September 30 to October 3 and a “Mary Lou Williams Youth Explosion,” a concert featuring youth performances of Williams’ music and spoken word poetry inspired by her life and legacy.  

In the months prior to the Fall Festival, jazz and spoken word ensemble groups put on five performances in area high schools. These events were followed by a series of weekly workshops at several after-school community centers where students were guided in composing their own Williams-inspired poetry. Also, five high school jazz bands attended performance clinics put on by the UW Jazz Orchestra with the younger students learning advanced techniques before they themselves performed Williams’ music.

•   •   •   •   •

Through the Centennial Celebration, I had wanted to do for Mary Lou Williams what the poet Alice Walker had done for Zora Neale Hurston: help lift an incredible African American genius out of obscurity back into her rightful place in the art world.  Our local Centennial Celebration did just that, placing Mary Lou Williams and her musical genius in the hearts and minds of thousands of people in the Madison area. Data we collected showed that Centennial Celebration attendees and participants increased their knowledge of Williams’ contributions, their familiarity with—and appreciation of—her music, and left with a desire to learn more about her. I could not have done all this alone, and it turns out I didn’t need to. I had the help of my friends on the committee and local funding organizations as well as schools and community groups.

In the end, what made the Centennial Celebration remarkable was that it accomplished all its objectives through the collaboration and leadership of a small group of volunteers, coming together to support jazz and help return Mary Lou Williams to her rightful place among the greats of the jazz canon. 

In terms of the entire United States, there is still much work to be done to publicize the contributions of women artists in general. But Madison’s Mary Lou Williams’ Centennial Celebration demonstrated that through collaboration and education the superb music of a legendary jazz artist like Mary Lou Williams can be introduced to the public in many venues and be well received in all. Madison should be proud of its role in honoring Williams’ genius during her lifetime and its continuing effort to acknowledge her important legacy.

Contributors

Fabu Phillis Carter, professionally known as Fabu, began writing at the age of eleven and has continued to create poetry throughout her adult life. She was appointed Madison’s Poet Laureate in 2008 and served in that position until 2011.

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