Born in Atlanta and raised in Atlanta, jazz pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910 _1981) first performed in public at age six and went on to work with Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey and Cecil Taylor. Williams would become a stalwart of the bebop movement, collaborating with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) marks the 100th anniversary of Williams' birth with the Mary Lou Williams Centennial on November 13 _14 in Rose Theater at 8 p.m. Two modern interpreters of her work, Geri Allen and Geoffrey Keezer, along with JLCO pianist Dan Nimmer, will be featured musicians.
The talented pianist Geri Allen is honored to be part of the celebration, and calls Williams "one of the true pillars of jazz; she remained contemporary throughout her extensive career."Prior to swing through well after bebop, and well after bebop," Allen continues, "Williams remained on the cutting edge: introducing advanced harmonic structures and rich textures from early on to the end. She was an authentic modernist and fierce technician, able to perform the entire history of the piano."
Allen recalls how Williams opened her home in Harlem to such gifted pianists as Dr. Billy Taylor and John Malachi, inviting them and others to play her piano and exchange ideas. "These now famous 'piano salons,'" says Allen, "became incubators of creative intention, supporting a spirit of community and innovation amongst some of the great- est pianists/conceptualists of the time. She continued this interest well into the twilight years of her career, collaborating with pianist/innovator Cecil Taylor in 1977.
"Mary Lou Williams was one of the first to make the connection that jazz was an authentic sacred music platform. Her passion and intensity has been key in helping this current generation's pursuits into ways to integrate personal spirituality into jazz performance, and her music continues to inspire and illuminate."
Pianist Geoffrey Keezer, also featured in the celebration, joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1989 at the age of 18. Today, he's busy stepping out on his own and keeping up his chops on duet projects with Chick Corea, Kenny Barron, Benny Green and Mulgrew Miller. "One of the original masters of boogie-woogie, blues, and stride piano," he says, "Mary Lou Williams sought evolution and inclusiveness in music and humanity."
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra's own pianist, Dan Nimmer, has nothing but deep respect and adoration for the legendary pianist, noting that Williams was able "to create a strong legacy in a male-dominated art form." Playing her music and arrangements, says Zimmer, is always an intriguing learning experience.
Mary Lou Williams was inducted into the Jazz at Lincoln Center Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame in 2008. You can visit the Hall of Fame online at jalc.org/halloffame.
Join us for a night of jazz piano as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis are joined with guests Geri Allen and Geoffrey Keezer in celebration of the Mary Lou Williams Centennial next month. There is also a free pre-concert lecture nightly at 7 p.m.
For the complete Jazz at Lincoln Center 2009 _2010 schedule, visit jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center.