Classical, Jazz Orbits Cross In Visionary Art Of Mary Lou Williams

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Pianist Aaron Diehl and his jazz trio — including David Wong, bass, and Aaron Kimmel, drums — performed Mary Lou Williams’ ‘Zodiac Suite’ with the New World Symphony. (Photo by Alex Markow)

MIAMI — Slowly but surely, the music of jazz pianist-arranger-composer Mary Lou Williams is inching its way into the American classical canon. An important step in that evolution took place throughout February as the New World Symphony, the orchestral academy co-founded at South Beach in 1987 by Michael Tilson Thomas (now artistic director laureate), presented its third annual “I Dream a World” festival exploring the Harlem Renaissance and its legacy in concerts, educational programs, and community outreach, with the focus of this year’s edition on Williams. The festival concluded with the orchestra of NWS fellows playing her works on a program I attended on Feb. 24. Conducted by Andrew Grams, it featured pianist Aaron Diehl and his jazz trio, jazz singer Carmen Lundy, and a pair of university choirs.

Mary Lou Williams in 1946. (Photo by William P. Gottlieb/Library of Congress)

“There are so many different shades of Mary Lou,” festival curator Tammy Kernodle told me in an interview before the performance. Kernodle, a musicologist who teaches at Miami University in Ohio, is author of the 2004 biography Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. “In the concert, we cover a wide range of compositions, including her Zodiac Suite, some of her bebop stuff, and her sacred music. I’m especially excited about Mary Lou’s last piece, a wind ensemble, which has not been heard.”

There was an almost Mozartian quality to the arc of Williams’ life, compounded by issues of race and gender. She was born in 1910 in segregated Atlanta, where she picked out tunes on her mother’s piano at age 3. Soon the family migrated to Pittsburgh, and there she became locally celebrated as a prodigy known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” Leaving home at 14 to tour in vaudeville, she eventually made her way to Andy Kirk’s Kansas City swing band the Clouds of Joy, with which she became famous as a brilliant pianist and innovative arranger. Despite the obstacles a woman faced in the sexist world of jazz, she wrote arrangements for Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, and Tommy Dorsey.

In 1942, Williams moved to New York and quickly became a star in the city’s thriving jazz scene, playing at legendary clubs like Café Society. At her Harlem apartment, she hosted after-hours jam sessions for the leading lights of jazz, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, Erroll Garner, and Bud Powell. The Zodiac Suite was a seminal foray into symphonic jazz, her response to Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige, premiered a few years earlier. In 1957, she converted to Catholicism and later turned to composing religious music. In all, her catalog contains more than 300 compositions. Williams died of bladder cancer in 1981 in Durham, NC, where she had been on the Duke University music faculty for four years.

In ‘History: A Wind Symphony,’ Aaron Diehl improvised bluesy transitions between the movements. (Photo by Alex Markow)

Williams’ career spanned nearly 60 years of jazz – from spirituals to ragtime to the big band era, from bebop to fusion – and that’s how the NWS concert opened, with her unfinished musical primer on the art form, History: A Wind Symphony. She was working on it during the final months of her life, as shown in a 1989 documentary about the composer called Music on My Mind that has footage of her in the hospital listening to a playback of a recorded rehearsal of the new work and giving notes on it to the conductor. About two years ago, Duke music professor and composer Anthony Kelley discovered a partial score, sketches, notes, the rehearsal recording on cassette, and other material relating to the symphony in an archive at the school. He made a project of reconstructing Williams’ farewell work, and through Kernodle, it landed in the festival as a world premiere.

Hearing History at the top of the program worked beautifully, because it demonstrated where Williams’ lifelong development as a musician took her. There were dissonant, wailing harmonics scattered throughout the 10-minute work, performed by 28 wind and brass players and a pair of percussionists. On piano, Diehl provided bluesy, improvised transitions to link the five movements. The heart of the piece was the “Ragtime” movement anchored by a bouncy clarinet trio. Prominently heard was the punchy tuba of NWS fellow Bridget Conley, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that part of the score might be a little homage to bandleader and occasional tuba player Kirk, who in the 1930s taught the young, self-trained Mary Lou how to notate her arrangements. Kelley did a terrific job on History, transforming Williams’ fragments into a polished gem. It will be performed again on April 13 by the Duke University Wind Symphony in a concert on campus and may be streamed live at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5ZWHJ2Yri0.

The program’s other new work — or, at least, newly cast in symphonic form — was Williams’ ebullient Boogie for symphony. (Through the years she wrote several pieces with “Boogie” in the title). Its orchestration benefited from the improvisational insight of Diehl, who, during rehearsal, came up with the grinding blasts of a chord cluster by the orchestra at the beginning and end of the short piece.

Carmen Lundy was featured in Williams jazz hits as well as selections from the composer’s Mass. (Photo by Alex Markow)

Diehl is a magical jazz pianist, and he is deeply invested in the Zodiac Suite, having put in a lot of thought and time to get the score, and his superb trio’s approach to it, right. He and his mates, bassist David Wong and percussionist Aaron Kimmel, have performed the suite widely with orchestras, and their 2023 album of it with The Knights chamber orchestra was nominated for a Grammy. The NWS performance of six of the 12 movements, each named for an astrological sign, was suitably spectacular, with the trio performing the “Virgo” and “Scorpio” movements on its own, while collaborating with the orchestra of around 40 players in the “Aries,” “Sagittarius,” “Gemini,” and “Aquarius” movements. Williams (who was a Taurus) conceived the work to be played by herself on solo piano, and there’s a recording of that original 1945 version on the Smithsonian Folkways label. What came as a revelation in this concert was how the complex orchestration – inspired by her study of Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Schoenberg – felt so lush and even romantic. “Aquarius” was particularly evocative, with gorgeous interplay of flute (NWS fellow Alexandria Hoffman) and other winds and brass amid swelling strings.

Performing with the trio, jazz singer Carmen Lundy, who was featured in the 2015 documentary Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band, brought down the house with a pair of the composer’s hits from 1938 — the torch songs “Ghost of Love” and “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” Another vocal highlight came in the choral section of the program, with Rashaud Marcelin, a tenor with the Ambassador Chorale of Florida Memorial University, giving a rousing gospel solo of the hymn “Anima Christi.”

For selections from Williams’ spiritual magnum opus, which has come to be known as Mary Lou’s Mass, Grams deserved credit for pulling together Lundy, the Diehl trio, an ensemble of six instrumentalist, and the 43-voice chorus, made up of singers from Florida Memorial and the Florida International University Jazz Vocal Ensemble. The conductor also had to cope with a video narrative that supplied useful context for the program but sometimes slowed the pace. It consisted of snippets of oral history, interviews with the composer, text, and vintage photos, all projected on panels above the orchestra in the concert hall and simultaneously streamed outdoors for a “Wallcast” on the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center’s 7,000-square-foot front wall to be taken in by the picnicking crowd on a breezy Saturday night in SoundScape Park.

Choristers from Florida Memorial University and Florida International University joined together. (Photo by Alex Markow)

The infectious Mass selections were enlivened by Lundy’s call and response with the choir, and her emotional rendition of the parable “Lazarus” was a great piece of theater. The performance of a pair of hymns Williams composed in memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after his 1968 assassination was powerfully moving. The trio laid down a rich rhythmic foundation, and their jazz virtuosity was clearly inspiring to the NWS fellows. Trumpeter Alan Tolbert, playing flugelhorn, and percussionist Caleb Breidenbaugh on congas both contributed splendid flights of improvisation. Melvin Butler, a professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, improvised a soulful tenor sax solo.

Williams was much involved with education, and the festival curator thought the combined student choirs – one from the historically Black Memorial University, the other from FIU being predominantly white – embodied the composer’s beliefs. “Those two groups coming together to sing Mary Lou’s sacred music is exactly what she envisioned,” said Kernodle, whose doctoral dissertation was on Williams’ religious pieces. “Young people coming together, letting go of all the differences between us that we sometimes focus on, and letting the music be the language of social change, the language of peace, the language of healing, the language of joy.”

To access a selection of Wallcasts, including the Williams program, and other NWS videos available on demand online, go here.