Mary Lou Williams’ legacy extends far beyond Duke’s Wednesday night jazz concerts and Center for Black Culture that bear her name.
Anthony Kelley, associate professor of the practice of music, spoke about Williams—who served as Duke’s artist-in-residence from 1977-1981—in the larger context of jazz music during the 20th century in a talk titled “Mary Lou Williams and Expressive Choice: Crossing of the Sacred/Secular Divide in Music.” Part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, which are hosted by the Office of Undergraduate Education, Kelley’s talk focused on the spiritual influence on Williams’ music and that of her contemporaries.
“You usually don’t go into a church or cathedral and think, ‘Hey, it’s time for some jazz,’” Kelley said, referring to Williams’ “Music for Peace,” which was later choreographed and performed as “Mary Lou’s Mass.” “In the 1960s, trust me, this is a challenge to everything that is holy to some people.”
The decade marked an “explosion of sacred works,” Kelley said, noting that prominent jazz musicians such as John Coltrane and Duke Ellington composed music with religious themes. Williams herself, who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1956, released an album in 1963 entitled “Black Christ of the Andes,” which referred to St. Martin de Porres, the patron saint of interracial harmony.
“There are some pretty amazing jewels of sacred music on there,” Kelley noted.
The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of which happened in the 1960s, likely contributed to this prominent trend, Kelley said.
“These are secular jazz artists,” he said. “Suddenly, mid-career sometimes, they shifted to the kind of things that are explicitly sacred.”
Kelley also referenced Wynton Marsalis, a contemporary jazz musician who has been composing since the 1980s. Kelley said Marsalis created a large repertoire of music that was secular and even occasionally “profane.” One of his 1991 albums, “Uptown Ruler (Soul Gestures in Southern Blue Vol. 2),” however, included a track entitled “Prayer” in the middle of it, and opened and closed with a track called “Psalm 26.” Williams and other artists of the era introduced musical themes and styles that informed music across genres in later decades and persist in hip-hop music today. Even music on “Mary Lou’s Mass” was reminiscent of today’s hip-hop, Kelley noted. Kelley began and ended his lecture by noting how pervasive dominant trends can be, commending jazz artists like Williams for their innovation and influence.
“The meta-message to you, outside of music and outside of art, is no matter what your field is, there will be driving trends that [attempt] to determine what you’re doing,” Kelley said. “But if your conscience calls you to go in a particular direction, you follow it with all your might.”
The lecture was delivered to students across departments, some of whom were pursuing music majors or minors and some whom were not. Freshman Christy McDaniel, who lives in Brown dormitory where, Kelley is the faculty-in-residence, said the lecture addressed topics she had not considered before.
“It was interesting to see how any action can cause a reaction, how we influence each other as human beings consciously and unconsciously,” McDaniel said, referencing the rise and spread of religious jazz music.
Julius Jones, administrative fellow for the Office of Undergraduate Education and Trinity ’12, organizes the Chautauqua lectures. He said that Kelley was a clear choice for a speaker.
“Professor Kelley is someone who is very highly thought of by students,” Jones said. “He has shown a commitment to engaging students outside the classroom.”
Kelley has previously taken groups of students to jazz clubs, Jones noted, adding that the engaging and accessible nature of Kelley’s lecturing style make him an ideal speaker.
More can be done at Duke to appreciate Williams’ influence and contributions to jazz music, Kelley said.
“This is a woman who was important to Duke Ellington, she was important to Dizzy Gillespie, she was important to Thelonius Monk and she’s still important to a lot of people who are there to listen,” Kelley said. “We’re in a society that keeps moving forward and we sometimes forget to reflect on important notes.”