Skip to main content

Campus, city celebrate centennial of jazz legend

September 30, 2010 By Susannah Brooks

As a pianist, composer, arranger, educator and humanitarian, Mary Lou Williams (1910-81) gained a sterling reputation among her jazz peers. But to many outsiders, even jazz fans, she remained unknown and underappreciated. Her 1976 visit to the University of Wisconsin–Madison brought her work alive, but few pictures or recordings remain.

From Thursday, Sept. 30-Sunday, Oct. 3, performers and scholars from several traditions celebrate her life and work with a full slate of commemorative events. By raising her profile, the organizers of the Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration hope to encourage local appreciation of jazz while rebuilding connections between jazz and the black community.

Several events take place on and around the UW–Madison campus or in conjunction with other university organizations. All events listed below are free and open to the public; however, other events may require tickets. A complete listing of events is available at

  • Wisconsin Book Festival: “The Little Piano Girl” and “Morning Glory”

“The Little Piano Girl”: Thursday, Sept. 30, 5:30 p.m., Madison Children’s Museum, 100 N. Hamilton St.: Maryann Macdonald, acclaimed author of picture books and middle-grade fiction, will present on Williams’ early life as a child prodigy growing up in poverty in Pittsburgh. Macdonald will read from her new children’s book, “The Little Piano Girl,” co-written with Ann Ingalls.

“Morning Glory”: Saturday, Oct. 2, 4 p.m., A Room of One’s Own, 307 W. Johnson St.: Linda Dahl, novelist and jazz biographer, reads from her 1999 work “Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams,” the first full-length biography of Williams. Including stories and correspondence from Williams’ archives, the book also provides a comprehensive appendix useful for anyone searching for Williams’ music.

  • Passing the Mic: “I am Mary Lou”

Friday, Oct. 1, 6:30 p.m., Wisconsin Historical Society Auditorium, 816 State St.: Five students from UW–Madison’s First Wave Hip Hop Theater Ensemble present a performance commissioned by the Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration. Patrick Sims, associate professor of theater, will moderate a special post-event talk back session including Richard Davis, professor of bass, and guest artist Mark Gonzales. The event is part of “Passing the Mic,” the sixth annual Spoken Word Series, and presented by the Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives (OMAI) and the Wisconsin Book Festival.

  • The Recordings of Mary Lou Williams: A 50-Year Retrospective

Friday, Oct. 1, 7:30 p.m., St. Paul’s University Catholic Center, 723 State St.: The Rev. Peter O’Brien, S.J., served as Williams’ manager during the latter stages of her career. Now the executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, he will present a 50-year multimedia review of Williams’ recorded music.

  • Symposium: Reflecting on Mary Lou Williams, Envisioning the Future of Jazz

Saturday, Oct. 2, 10 a.m.-3:15 p.m. at the Pyle Center, 702 Langdon St.: The Centennial Committee and the UW–Madison School of Music present a day of music and scholarship that examines the past, present and future of jazz. Tammy Kernodle, of Miami University, presents the keynote speech on The program includes panels on the future of jazz studies and Williams’ music and legacy, featuring scholars from across the country.