Mary Lou Williams Festival 2010
The festival reached its culmination next with the performance of Mary Lou Williams' Mass by Afro Blue, Carmen Lundy (vocals), Gerri Allen (piano), Kenny Davis (bass), and Andrew Cyrille (drums). Written in 1969 under a papal commission, Williams' Mass (originally titled Music for Peace), is a statement of profound religious belief and represented a groundbreaking integration of African-American musical traditions with traditional sacred Catholic music. The full scope of the Mass incorporates blues, gospel, and jazz, while its structure follows traditional liturgical service.
Lead by Lundy and Allen, the collective presented sixteen pieces, each a magnificent gem individually, but which combined formed a deeply affecting whole. Lundy's masterful singing embodied the music's grandeur and passion, whether diving into the blues depths of "Lazarus," or joining with the chorus for the impassioned call to faith "Holy, Holy, Holy." Throughout, Allen provided note-perfect accompaniment, as well as multiple intricate solos that drove home the inspirational power of Williams' composition. An astounding accomplishment by all involved, the night's performance made clear that the historical significance of Williams' Mass is only surpassed by its lasting beauty and force of purpose.
By the end of the three-day Women In Jazz festival honoring Mary Lou Williams' birth and her legendary musical contributions, the Kennedy Center had succeeded in painting a portrait of Mary Lou Williams that revealed the historical scope of her influence on jazz's development, the enormity of her gifts, and the profundity of her spiritual commitment. In doing so, the Kennedy Center provided a great service by exposing the wide range of Williams' music to a broader audience. Virginia Mayhew described her experience preparing for the festival as follows:
"I had the impression that she was a very good musician, but it wasn't until I started delving into her recordings and scores that I began to realize the extent of her musicianship. My respect for her is tremendous and continues to grow."
The three-day exploration of Williams' music allowed the audience to experience this same revelation. It also became clear that Mary Lou Williams' music possesses a depth and expansiveness sadly still not fully recognized and absorbed by the jazz world, the cannon of which still routinely lists its pantheon of greats with no mention of her name. Therefore, perhaps ironically, the very success of the festival in providing audiences access to Williams' astonishing musical career illustrated the continued relevance of the Women in Jazz festival as a whole and its importance in furnishing a space for the many women voices of jazz, past and present, to be highlighted.