Mary Lou Williams' Harlem Salon Goes Digital

Mary Lou Williams/ photo: William P. Gottlieb

Anytime stride piano, swing, bebop and yet further developments in jazz styles intermingle, which is to say most times a living jazz pianist plays, the influence of Mary Lou Williams gets felt.
Anytime jazz’s purpose—its essential connection to African American history and culture and to social justice in general, its intellectual search, it spiritual legacy and potential, there is Williams too.
When we speak of Kansas City or Pittsburgh or Greenwich Village or, especially, Harlem, when we talk about how jazz legacies get passed on, how women were always right there, or how any jazz player today might best follow her or his heart, there also is Williams.
I’ll say more about all that in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, though a story tied to a fascinating two-week celebration of her legacy at Manhattan’s Harlem Stage, and a three-night theatrical production with Geri Allen at the piano.
Allen is perhaps the clearest inheritor today of Williams’s influence and her music, into which she has delved deeply and for decades.
Wednesday morning, March 12, she convenes a rare, wide-ranging and fascinating national symposium that draws upon her touch at the piano, her network of fellow musicians and scholars and online technology.
LINK TO IT LIVE HERE, from 11am-2pm EST. (It will also be archived.)
Geri Allen/ photo courtesy, University of Pittsburgh

I’ll be checking in just to hear duo-piano performances (from remote locations)—Allen with Jason Moran, and with Vijay Iyer, I’m told. In between, the discussions should be every bit as captivating.

Here’s what the website of the events host, the University Of Pittsburgh (one of six collaborating institutions, including Harlem Stage), says:

The national symposium, which will be streamed live at, was conceived by Geri Allen, associate professor of music and director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program. It will feature improvised piano duets by pianists in studios hundreds of miles apart, a portion of a work-in-progress film on Williams, and panel discussions with university scholars. Participants at five venues will partake in the online event simultaneously. This is one of the first times Pitt has used the Internet 2 Network for an arts-related event. 

Williams, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and many others at a time when there were few female arrangers. Allen researched Williams as an ethnomusicology student here at Pitt in 1982.
The cyber symposium will feature music and/or commentary by:

  • Geri Allen;
  • Jason Moran, musical adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts;
  • Harvard University Professor of Music Vijay Iyer;
  • Columbia University Professor of English and African American Studies Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Harlem Nocturne (Basic Civitas Books, 2013);
  • Emory University Associate Professor of Music Theory and African American Music Dwight Andrews, who will deliver a talk titled “Mary Lou Williams: One Sister’s Spiritual Quest”;
  • Malcolm X Dean, a former piano student of Allen’s at the University of Michigan;
  • Rev. Peter F. O’Brien, executive director of Mary Lou Williams Foundation, Inc.;
  • Jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy;
  • Renowned tenor opera singer George Shirley;
  • University of Michigan Associate Director of Choirs and Assistant Professor of Conducting Eugene Rogers; and

Excerpts of a film by Carrie Mae Weems.

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