Duke University will premiere the last piece composed by jazz legend Mary Lou Williams.

Williams's impact on jazz seen in Monk and Gillespie's work, influenced by her.

March 24th 2024.

Duke University will premiere the last piece composed by jazz legend Mary Lou Williams.
Mary Lou Williams, known as the first lady of jazz, has a final piece of work that will be debuted at Duke University. This piece was recently discovered and completed by Anthony Kelley, a music professor at the university. According to WUNC, Williams' influence on jazz can be heard in the music of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, two artists she greatly influenced.

The piece, titled "History: A Wind Symphony," was left unfinished when Williams passed away in 1981. For many years, it was considered a lost work until Williams' notes were found. In an interview with WUNC on their Due South podcast, Kelley explained how Williams' unique style of voicing harmony and melodies caught the attention of fellow musician Andy Kirk. This led to her becoming an orchestrator and composer for Kirk's big band, resulting in many of her well-known songs and compositions.

Kelley also shared with WUNC that Williams' deep Catholic faith played a significant role in her work. Her most notable masterpiece, "Mary Lou's Mass," was choreographed by the late Alvin Ailey and his American Dance Theater. After 35 years, the dance company, now known as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, brought back the performance in 2011. The New York Times praised it as a "celebration of life, jazz, and gospel, an assertively happy work."

In discussing Williams' contributions to the jazz genre, Kelley acknowledged that her work is not as widely recognized as it should be. He attributes this to the historical marginalization of African-American women in society. However, he believes that things are changing, and there are now more opportunities to bring her work to the forefront.

Kelley also spoke about his experience in restoring Williams' lost composition, saying it was one of the greatest honors of his life. He never had the chance to meet Williams since he entered Duke as an undergraduate two years after her passing. What motivated him to search for her work was a documentary film called "Music On My Mind," directed by Joanna Burke, which featured his conductor at the university, Paul Bryan. The film showcased the last composition Williams had been working on for Duke.

Kelley searched for about a year before finally finding Williams' notes. His efforts culminated in the completion of her final work, which will have its premiere at Duke University on April 13, 2024. It is a testament to Williams' lasting impact on the world of jazz, and a fitting tribute to her legacy.

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