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Mary Lou Williams Took Kansas City Music To The Stars, And A Jazz Band Brings Her Back

William P. Gottlieb

Mary Lou Williams only spent a dozen years in Kansas City during its first jazz heyday, but this is where she solidified her professional reputation, gaining the respect of leaders in the field.

“Mary Lou Williams is increasingly ranked as one of the most significant and influential composers to have ever made Kansas City their home base,” says Dan Cameron, artistic director of Open Spaces.

Among the ten-week festival's opening-weekend events is a free performance of Williams’ “Zodiac Suite” by the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra in Swope Park.

“Kansas City jazz history is full of so many people who were not from here, who came here, helped develop the style, and then took it elsewhere,” says Clint Ashlock, Kansas City Jazz Orchestra’s artistic director. He is arranging Williams’ “Zodiac Suite” for the 19-piece big band.

“Mary Lou Williams in one of the people that assimilated the style and took it in many, many directions,” Ashlock says.

Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1910 and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A prodigy at the piano, she was touring by age 12. She landed in Kansas City in 1929 and began to sit in with the band Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, eventually joining full time.

Mentored by Kirk, she started arranging and composing. She left Kansas City in 1941, but the influence from those years held sway even as her career took her to New York, to Europe and around the world, as a soloist and bandleader, and as her style evolved.

“Aside from her various Masses, ‘Zodiac Suite’ is probably her most discussed and frequently performed long-form composition, and one of her two or three that I personally think are truly lasting achievements,” Cameron says.

Williams saw the suite as the start of a new direction for her career and artistic output. Though originally written for trio and solo piano in 1944, she rescored the movements for chamber ensemble in 1945, and then orchestrated three movements for a performance of the Carnegie Pops Orchestra in 1946. Others have put their hand to it, too, such as Geri Allen, for the 2006 album “Zodiac Suite: Revisited.”

The suite moves through each of the signs of the zodiac. Williams conceived each movement as corresponding to a particular personality or set of personalities, and each movement is as individual as those personalities: “Aries” is for Ben Webster and Billie Holiday; “Gemini” is dedicated to Benny Goodman, Harold Baker (Williams’ former husband) and Miles Davis; “Aquarius” to President Franklin D. Roosevelt; “Taurus” channels Duke Ellington, Ellis Larkins and Williams herself, and so forth through the signs, each matched to prominent figures, primarily in jazz.

She was inspired not only by the jazz styles, but also by the modernist composers of the era, such as Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.

There’s a lot of musical material to work with, especially since she recorded multiple takes of some of the signs, and Ashlock uses her melodies and musical concepts to bring Williams’ music back to her origins.

“What I wanted to do was devour the few interpretations of these pieces of music over time, and then try to make them into what I feel like is a contemporary Kansas City sound,” says Ashlock. “That's very subjective, but I treat the big band as an extension of the Count Basie-Thad Jones-Frank Foster-Bobby Watson lineage.”

Though her music changed over time, Ashlock says, Williams adhered to the blues sensibility and the rhythms associated with Kansas City jazz.

Credit Kansas City Jazz Orchestra
For the inaugural weekend of Open Spaces, the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra will perform its unique new arrangement of Mary Lou Williams' 'Zodiac Suite.'

In a 1978 interview during the inaugural Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, Williams said, “I’ve lived through four eras of jazz and I’ve played the styles of all of them. The greatest era of them all was Kansas City in the thirties.”

In the mid-1950s, Williams, discouraged, took time away from performing, becoming immersed in her faith. She eventually returned to the stage, but remained spiritually guided and used music as a way to help others.

“Jazz is a thing that feeds love and is healing to the soul,” she said in a 1976 interview.

"The thing with Mary Lou that stands out to me above a lot of other things — and there were a lot, she was very dynamic — she was one of the few jazz musicians who really let her style change along the arc of style changes in jazz,” Ashlock says. “She wasn't just aware of style changes, she dove into them.”

In selecting artists to spotlight for Open Spaces, Cameron says, his “research into Kansas City's modern era was directing me towards unearthing important things that had somehow fallen by the wayside locally, or were relatively under-exposed in the present era.”

But Kansas City hasn’t forgotten about Mary Lou Williams: A stretch of road at 10th and Paseo is marked Mary Lou Williams Lane, Rockhurst University awarded her an honorary degree in 1980, and she’s been included in jazz compilations, coloring books, histories, and tribute performances.

With its performance of her “Zodiac Suite,” however, the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is set to lend a new facet to her creative legacy and continuing influence.

Kansas City Jazz Orchestra performs Mary Lou Williams' "Zodiac Suite," 4:30 p.m. Sunday, August 26, in Swope Park, 3999 Swope Pkwy & E Meyer Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri 64132. Also part of Open Spaces, on October 11 at 5:30 p.m., 21C Museum Hotel hosts a panel discussion on Mary Lou Williams with Kansas City Jazz Orchestra artistic director Clint Ashlock and saxophonist Bobby Watson, moderated by historian Chuck Haddix.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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