Mary Lou Williams, jazz

Jazz Icon Mary Lou Williams’ Final Composition To Debut At Duke University

Williams’s influence on the genre of jazz can be felt through the work of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

Mary Lou Williams, often described as the first lady of jazz, will have her final piece of work debuted at Duke University after it was recently discovered and finished by Anthony Kelley, a professor of the practice of music at the university

As WUNC reports, Williams’ influence on the jazz genre can be felt through the work of Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. Her last known work, “History: A Wind Symphony,” which was unfinished when she died in 1981, was considered a lost work until Williams found her notes. 

As Kelley told WUNC in an interview on its Due South podcast, “Early on, she became very well known for how she voiced harmony, how she voiced melodies and so she began to work with Andy Kirk who is an extraordinary big band artist and she became an orchestrator for him and composer and so she began to write quite a few songs and compositions for his big bands.”

Kelley said the embrace of her Catholic faith led to a masterwork, entitled “Mary Lou’s Mass,” which was choreographed by the late Alvin Ailey and his American Dance Theater. The dance company brought the performance back in 2011 for the first time in 35 years. It was hailed by the New York Times as a “celebration of life, jazz, and gospel, an assertively happy work.”

Kelley also described the reason that so few are aware of Williams’ work and contributions: “She’s an African American woman, we have a history of making certain members of our society a bit marginal. That is what our American society does and has a history of doing. What’s maybe a ray of hope is that that’s changing and we have opportunities to raise the profile.”

Kelley added, “I consider it one of the honors of my life to be in the space at a time when everything sort of came together. Bear in mind, she was writing this piece for the Duke Wind Symphony. I never met her cause I entered Duke as an undergrad two years after she passed away.”

What pushed Kelley to search for Williams’ work was the documentary film, Music On My Mind, directed by Joanna Burke, which featured his conductor at Duke, Paul Bryan. The film features the last composition Williams was working on for the university.

Kelley searched for about a year after until he tracked down the notes. Now Williams’ final work will premiere at Duke University on April 13, 2024.