Celebrating Jazz Musician Mary Lou Williams

October 23, 2019

If you’ve never heard of jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, don’t be too hard on yourself.  Neither had either performer for the event the Friends hosted in celebration of her life until they just happened across her music.  But now that we’ve mentioned her, if you care about jazz you will want to look her up. Mary Lou Williams was a mid-20th century American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer, writing hundreds of compositions and arrangements for herself and the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others.  As a woman of color, her musical gifts were often overlooked and regularly pirated by other artists. But she was an exceptional musician and it was the goal of the Friends to shine a spotlight on her work and celebrate her important legacy.

To accomplish this, the Friends enlisted Fabu, Lawren Brianna Ware, and Tom Caw.  Fabu, as she is professionally known, is a poet, columnist, storyteller, and educator, who served as Madison Poet Laureate 2008-2012.  Fabu continues to share her experiences of living in the South, the Midwest, and in Africa. Her newest work is Remember Me, Mary Lou Williams in PoetryBrianna Ware received her Master of Music degree in Piano Performance from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to her work as a pianist, Brianna is an accomplished composer and dedicated piano teacher. Tom Caw is the Music Public Services Librarian at the Mills Music Library, which is located in the basement of UW-Madison’s Memorial Library.  You can listen to his interview on WORT 89.9 FM about the event here, about 12 minutes into the hour (October 11, 8 O’Clock Buzz).  All three individuals came together to highlight the very special music of Mary Lou Williams.

Fabu’s original poetry outlined Mary Lou’s life and struggles as she fought to hold her place on the piano bench (if you will) in a man’s musical world.  As Fabu recited the powerful words, Brianna colored between the lines on the grand piano with her renditions of Mary Lou Williams’ pieces. The result was a unique and powerful interdisciplinary performance.  Following the show, Tom displayed sheet music, books, records, and CD’s pulled from the Mills Music Library by and about Williams. While Fabu signed copies of her book, Tom played a recording of Williams performing at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 1976.  Delicious food and service from the University Club rounded out a perfect evening. The Friends of UW-Madison Libraries were delighted to help others who may have never heard of Mary Lou Williams find a sound that is as fresh today as it was 75 years ago.

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