By any standard, Mary Lou Williams was a remarkable person. She was one of the greatest jazz pianists in history, often ranked alongside Art Tatum. She was an innovative composer whose music evolved throughout her life. And as an African American woman, she blazed many trails. It was fitting, then, that her life and work were celebrated in Duke Chapel on the afternoon of September 21, and that her life and work served as the focal point of a larger celebration being called "20/40 - Celebrating a Legacy of Struggle and Excellence at Duke University." The occasion marked two milestone events in Duke's history - the 20th anniversary of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, named in memory of the artist and teacher whose final years (1977-81) were spent at Duke, and the 40th anniversary of Duke's admission of its first five African American undergrads. The September 21 event, presented in the Chapel, wove together many strands in a celebration that underscored the importance of diversity and combined effort while concurrently reminding all present that the paths that must be followed are not always easy to navigate.
Leon Dunkley, current Director of the Mary Lou Williams Center, literally called down the blessing to get the program underway. There followed three spirituals - "You Are the Living Word," "I Want to Sing Praise," and "I Love You more than Anything" - sung by Duke's United in Praise gospel choir, a 50-voice ensemble headed by Derek Daniels but with shared artistic leadership. The three numbers set the mood for the music that was to come, and they were performed in and with the spirit. Remarks by Father Peter F. O'Brien, whose presence at Williams' side will be recalled by readers who had the pleasure of knowing her during her years at Duke, filled in the chinks left by the somewhat bare-bones program leaflet; he is the Executive Director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, based in Jersey City, NJ.
The afternoon's visiting artists included the Geri Allen Trio, consisting of pianist Allen, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Billy Hart. It was fascinating and amazing to observe these seasoned professionals in action, in part because the nominal leader had her back to her colleagues and was obliged to turn around in order to communicate with them. The sound, however, betrayed no glitches - their performances of Allen's "Thank You, Madam" and "Freedomways," bracketing "St. Martin de Porres," credited to Williams and Anthony S. Woods, her first spiritual mentor. The readings were reverential in nature and expansive, but in the concluding "Freedomways" the trio cut loose, delivering some hot solos that nonetheless fit admirably into the context of the occasion.
The piece de resistance was a rare performance of the Mass for Peace, also known as Mary Lou's Mass. It featured the afternoon's other major guest artist, the superb jazz singer Carmen Lundy, whose voice and delivery put a whole host of world-class operatic divas to shame. The voice is of dark chocolate richness and strength (amplified in the Chapel, but perhaps unnecessarily), and her diction was without exception crystal-clear. That she made every word tell, and that every word registered emotion, and that her overall communications skills are among the finest this critic has yet experienced, made for a truly memorable occasion. She was supported throughout by Allen's trio, the choral work was provided by the 33-member Vocal Arts Ensemble, and Rodney Wynkoop directed the performance, so attendees were virtually assured of artistic excellence, and it is inconceivable that anyone present can have gone away disappointed.
The Mass is a strange, hybrid work that merges standard Mass components - Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei - with supplemental material. Its model may have been Ellington's Sacred Service music, which we've been privileged to hear at Duke; indeed, Williams' Mass was done there, too, in 1980. As noted, Williams was an innovative composer, and her Mass hammers this home. It's easy to imagine that her jazz fans found it difficult to grasp. Structurally, it is a bit uneven, with some of its 15 sections treated cursorily. The music is mostly original, but the tune of at least one section - "Lazarus" - was instantly recognizable from the Great Tradition.... The work, which is often uplifting and at times positively ethereal, is rooted in jazz, in spirituals, and in Williams' many varied experiences, and, based on this performance, it speaks directly and powerfully to today's audiences. We won't go through its component parts in detail - the performance was recorded, and with luck readers who missed the concert will at some point be able to hear the score - but several numbers stood out, for various reasons. "I Have a Dream," based on King's speech, brought Lundy to the fore in an awesome context. "The Lord Says," in a call-and-response setting, manages to evoke Renaissance music by involving a melismatic solo, sung in the Chapel by VAE member Susan James Frye. Applause followed "Act of Contrition," in which Buster Williams' bass spoke with virtuoso fluency; this was neither the first nor the last time that the crowd responded in jazz-club fashion to the excitement of the occasion. "In His Day" brought forward Matthew Fry, another soloist from the VAE. The Credo involved a long ride for the trio, during which Wynkoop stood motionless, smiling all the while. Lundy's projection and diction made the Lord's Prayer even more powerful than usual. The bowed bass accompaniment of the Dona nobis pacem ("Give us Peace," in this version, appended to an introductory "People in Trouble") - and several other sections, too - suggests Bach's use of strings in the St. Matthew Passion . The grand finale, "Praise the Lord," is a stem-winder of considerable proportions, often downright noisy, that brought the audience to its feet as the place erupted with applause and cheers. Here's hoping that Mary Lou's Mass will be given again before another 23 years pass at Duke.
For more information about the Mary Lou Williams Center, visit http://mlw.studentaffairs.duke.edu/ [inactive 11/03]. For a biography of Williams, see http://www.duke.edu/~lmr/ [inactive 2/04]. For still more information about Williams' life and spirituality, see http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/ijs/mlw/religious_1.html [inactive 11/03]. For information about United in Praise, see http://www.duke.edu/web/bsa/internal/praise.htm [inactive 9/05].
The Vocal Arts Ensemble will perform at the convention of the Southern Division of the American Choral Directors Association in Nashville, TN, in late February. The group's next formal concert in the Triangle is planned for June 20, in Duke Chapel.