University of Pittsburgh to Host Cyber Symposium on Mary Lou Williams

Updated: Stream the entire Marylou Williams Cyber Symposium video here!

PITTSBURGH—Pittsburgh pianist and jazz legend Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) will be the focus of a cyber symposium hosted by the University of Pittsburgh—which will use Internet2 and PittNet to engage musicians and scholars around the country—from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 12. The national symposium was conceived by Geri Allen, associate professor of music and director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program. It will feature improvised piano duets by pianists in studios hundreds of miles apart, a portion of a work-in-progress film on Williams, and panel discussions with university scholars. Participants at five venues will partake in the online event simultaneously. This is one of the first times Pitt has used the Internet2 Network for an arts-related event.

Williams, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and many others at a time when there were few female arrangers. Allen researched Williams as an ethnomusicology student here at Pitt in 1982.

“I met Father Peter O’Brien at the Mary Lou Williams Foundation around that time,” said Allen, who will be a symposium participant. “He generously shared her scores and recordings with me over the years, and Mary Lou’s sisters and other family members in Pittsburgh have also been very generous and supportive, sharing stories about one of our pivotal American musicians.

"My brother, Mount Allen, of San Francisco Jazz, introduced me to the Internet2 technology. I became interested in the creative possibilities it offered and thought how exciting it would be to bring scholars and artists together to explore the work of Mary Lou, using this technology,” she added.

Williams donated her piano to Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program, and it is currently on loan to the Senator John Heinz History Center.

The cyber symposium will feature music and/or commentary by:

  • Geri Allen;
  • Jason Moran, musical adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts;
  • Harvard University Professor of Music Vijay Iyer;
  • Columbia University Professor of English and African American Studies Farah Jasmine Griffin, author of Harlem Nocturne (Basic Civitas Books, 2013);
  • Emory University Associate Professor of Music Theory and African American Music Dwight Andrews, who will deliver a talk titled “Mary Lou Williams: One Sister’s Spiritual Quest”;
  • Malcolm X Dean, a former piano student of Allen’s at the University of Michigan;
  • Rev. Peter F. O’Brien, executive director of Mary Lou Williams Foundation, Inc.;
  • Jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy;
  • Renowned tenor opera singer George Shirley;
  • University of Michigan Associate Director of Choirs and Assistant Professor of Conducting Eugene Rogers;
  • and Excerpts of a film by Carrie Mae Weems.

The symposium is being hosted by the University of Pittsburgh Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. Additional support comes from the San Francisco Jazz Organization, Emory University, the University of Michigan, Columbia University, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California, and the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Technical assistance for the symposium is being provided by staff at all venues. The live event will be recorded and later be made available for viewing online. The symposium will lead up to a Mary Lou Williams tribute event that will run March 13-15 at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse in New York City. “A Conversation with Mary Lou: Geri Allen Celebrates Mary Lou Williams” will feature Allen playing original music of her own and of Williams and vocalist Carmen Lundy bringing Williams’ words to life through song and dialogue scripted by author Farah Jasmine Griffin, all under the direction of Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor S. Epatha Merkerson.