Mary Lou Williams' jazz 'Mass' to feature Geri Allen
By Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press Staff Writer
October 1, 2014
Pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams, who died in 1981 at the age of 71, belongs on the short list of the most underrated figures in jazz history. One of her masterpieces, "Mary Lou's Mass," completed in 1970 and also known as "Music for Peace," will get its first local performance in more than decade Saturday under the umbrella of a 60th-anniversary celebration for the People's Community Church in Detroit.
Conductor Stanley Walden will lead a large chorus combining several area ensembles (including the Brazeal Dennard Chorale), and the vocal soloists include Naima Shamborguer and legendary tenor George Shirley. The core jazz group will be fronted by Geri Allen, the Detroit-bred pianist and star who has made an exploration of Williams' music a priority of her career. (In case you missed it, Allen, who had a long association with the University of Michigan, is now director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh.)
The sweep of Williams' career is remarkable. She made her mark initially as a blues-based Kansas City pianist and composer-arranger. As the de facto music director for Andy Kirk's band during the 1930s, she wrote swing-era staples like "Mary's Idea" and "Walkin' and Swingin' " and contributed charts to Benny Goodman, Earl Hines and others. By the 1940s, she was mentoring young bebop innovators like Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and writing arrangements for Duke Ellington ("Trumpet No End") and Gillespie ("In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee"). Meanwhile, she recorded elegant solo piano pieces filled with prescient harmony and nuanced emotion and composed the ambitious "Zodiac Suite," a work rich in sophisticated formal details.
Late in life, Williams spread her wings even more, composing large-scale liturgical music such as a cantata and three masses. The final one was "Music for Peace," which acquired its better-known name of "Mary Lou's Mass" when it was adapted for dance by Alvin Ailey. Williams' piano playing continued to evolve, too. Textures thickened, dissonance increased, and in 1977, she famously joined avant-garde icon Cecil Taylor in a two-piano concert at Carnegie Hall. But Williams never mortgaged the fundamental engine of the blues that drove her music from the time she signed on with Andy Kirk in 1929.
"Mary Lou's Mass" emerged in an era ripe with vernacular-inspired liturgical music, including Ellington's sacred music and Leonard Bernstein's "Mass." Williams' music is full of joy and celebration, and her wide field of vision synthesizes the entire spectrum of African-American music — spirituals, blues, swing, modern jazz, rock, soul, gospel. What keeps the feeling of pastiche at bay is that there's nothing in the piece that doesn't sound honest or deeply personal, and Williams' melodic ideas are consistently inspired.
6 p.m. Saturday, People's Community Church, 8601 Woodward (at Pingree), Detroit. $25 for concert, $50 for concert and dinner. 313-478-8257.
Of course, Allen came up under the wing of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who has his own showcase this weekend. Belgrave will lead three ensembles to open the Carr Center's fall season. Titled "Three Ways," the concert will draw inspiration from recent appearances at the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, Dizzy's Club in New York and the Detroit Jazz Festival.
The trumpeter's wife, vocalist Joan Belgrave, will be featured, and the players will be pianists Michael Malis and Ian Finkelstein, bassists Marion Hayden and Ibrahim Jones, drummers Gayelynn McKinney and Djallo Djakate, and saxophonists Kasan Belgrave (Marcus' son) and Nolan Young. 8 p.m. Sunday, Carr Center, 311 E. Grand River, Detroit. 313-965-8430. www.thecarrcenter.org. $20, $10 students.
Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or firstname.lastname@example.org