She may be the First Lady of Jazz, but many have never heard of her. Mary Lou Williams was an important composer and pianist - and woman - whose story has been too often overlooked.
This year marks what would have been Williams' 100th birthday - she died in 1981 - and Madison is one of several cities nationwide that are presenting a year's worth of programs in her honor. Madison's celebration culminates Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, with the Mary Lou Williams Fall Festival Weekend.
According to Howard Landsman, chairman of Madison's Mary Lou Williams Centennial Committee, Williams is "the most amazing female musician in the history of jazz." She worked with luminaries including Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, and she was active in each era of jazz from the 1920s to the 1970s.
"This year, being her centennial year, is really an opportunity to try to raise her profile and kind of simultaneously raise the profile of jazz," says Landsman.
Williams' tie to Madison dates to 1976, when she was invited to the UW campus as part of a series highlighting jazz artists. Cities participating in the centennial include New York City, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City.
Landsman thinks Madison's activities set the city's celebration apart. Highlights include Mary Lou Williams Foundation director the Rev. Peter O'Brien, who will present "The Recordings of Mary Lou Williams: A 50-year Retrospective," sampling music from her career and offering an insider's look at her life and legacy. O'Brien was Williams' friend and manager during the last decade of her career. The program takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 1, at St. Paul's University Catholic Center.
On Saturday there is a daylong symposium at the UW Pyle Center titled "Reflecting on Mary Lou Williams, Envisioning the Future of Jazz." Sunday morning offers Mary Lou's Mass, a 15-movement work Williams composed after converting to Catholicism in 1957. The Mass will be performed at Mount Zion Baptist Church (2019 Fisher St.) at 8 a.m. For a complete schedule of events, click here.
Landsman sees the centennial as an opportunity to learn about an artist with a quiet but powerful legacy.
"A number of the people who have come to our programs, up to now, feel like their eyes have been opened to something they should have known about long ago."