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The Kennedy Center Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival

Mary Lou Williams:
First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

On September 23, 1983, Duke University opened the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, responding to longstanding demands by members of the Afro-American Society, who had held a three-day sit-in 15 years earlier at the university’s Allen Building to protest what they considered unfair policies toward black students. Speakers at the Williams Center’s dedication included Father O’Brien, who was by then Executive Director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation; novelist Toni Morrison; and myself.

The purpose of the Black Cultural Center was to preserve and enhance black culture at Duke; to promote better understanding and harmony among the races; to provide a meeting facility for those with an interest in black culture; to promote the recruitment of black students to Duke by providing a magnet area; to help motivate the student population and general public to increase their knowledge and understanding of black culture; and to help black students maintain their self-esteem by promoting cultural pride.

I learned much about Mary Lou Williams, and about jazz in general, during the course of our conversations back in 1979 and 1980. Of her appointment at Duke University, she told me:

"It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Since my very first day, the classes have grown. Before the end of my first semester, we had to move from the classroom down to the auditorium. There’s really a big upsurge in Durham. Kids are writing to me from all over Europe and from around the world. They’re coming to Duke to study with me. Over 750 registered last January. We had to cut the registration back to 90."

She said of her early training:

"[I had] No formal instruction. My mother wouldn’t allow a teacher near me. She played by ear, then went to a teacher, and ended up not playing at all, just reading music. But my mother kept me in a musical environment. Professional musicians were always coming to the house. There were many good pianists in Atlanta, though they never became known nationally. For example, there was a guy named Jack Howard. He played stride piano, blues, ragtime, just about everything. He had a tremendous left-hand stretch, played a lot of tenths. With his brute strength he would tear up anybody’s piano. Well, I began imitating him. I used to listen to the self-player piano a lot."

I was curious about her reaction to the label "jazz."

"The term jazz is perhaps corny and can have derogatory meanings, but I keep it because our music comes under the heading of jazz. We Americans have supported European music for centuries, but we are too stupid to support what was created here in America. Not everyone, of course. The Guggenheim Foundation gave me two grants so I could give time to my jazz composition. Jazz was created out of suffering by the early black American slaves. Not by just one person, but by an entire race of people from the time of the spirituals up to Dizzy Gillespie/Charlie Parker era. Then it all stopped. Everybody got hung up on the title jazz. They were ashamed of the blues and some were ashamed of the spirituals, not realizing that it is important to have the spiritual and blues feeling in the music."

Always a teacher, Mary Lou frequently began major performances with a guide to piano styles that have influenced jazz over its history. She firmly believed that jazz and prayer are "twin mates of spiritual expression."

"Real jazz has love, and it has the spirit of God coming out of the suffering of black people. There are two things I express, the religious ideas and the musical ideas--both, otherwise it would be cold and have no feeling. When I’m playing, it seems as though someone else takes over. What I play comes from God, and I write it for the benefit of other people."

Lorna McDaniel wrote in the encyclopedia Black Women in America,

"Her niche as projector and protector of jazz is indisputable, and her importance in the history of jazz continues to be seen in the homage paid to her by scores of her musical progeny...[She] had the ability to shift to any style and harmonic structure in the history of jazz, from the stride of the Ragtime era to the boogie-woogie left-hand span of ten notes, or to the clustered and dissonant chords of avant-garde."