A Cyber Tribute to Jazz Legend Mary Lou Williams

Issue Date: 
April 14, 2014

AudiencesFrom left, pianist and Pitt Jazz Studies Program Director Geri Allen chats with Mary Lou Williams’ relatives Bobbie Ferguson, Geraldine Garnett, and Margaret Burley. around the globe participated in a unique tribute to Pittsburgh jazz legend Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) during a recent cyber symposium conceived by internationally renowned jazz pianist and composer Geri Allen, who is a professor of music and director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program.

With Allen seated at a Steinway concert grand piano in Pitt’s William R. Robinson Recording Studio in Bellefield Hall, and other jazz musicians and scholars participating four other cities—the March 12 event featured piano duets in real time as well as commentary, memories, anecdotes, and an analysis of Williams’ composition and music-arranging talents. Viewers were able to see speakers and musicians at all locations simultaneously, thanks to the technology provided through Internet2 and PittNet.

“I’mTechnicians at work in Bellefield Hall’s William R. Robinson Recording Studio. so excited to see this going on in Pittsburgh,” said Patty Neeper, who works at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Pittsburgh. While Allen’s portion of the symposium was being filmed in the studio, Neeper and other viewers watched on a large screen in a room four floors above. Among them were Williams’ younger sisters—Geraldine Garnett, 90, and Margaret Burley, 87—and Garnett’s daughter Bobbie Ferguson, 72.

“I never thought I would see anything like this,” remarked Garnett. She said she especially enjoyed the impromptu closing number that featured three pianists, separated by hundreds of miles in three different cities, who played together, aided by headsets that allowed them to hear one another.

Symposium participants—based in San Francisco, Ann Arbor, New York City, Cambridge, Mass., and Pittsburgh—included author Farah Jasmine Griffin; pianists Jason Moran, Malcolm X Dean, and Vijay Iyer; vocalist Carmen Lundy; Mount Allen, SFJAZZ Center director of operations; tenor opera singer George Shirley; Reverend Peter O’Brien, the Mary Lou Williams Foundation executive director; musical theorist and composer Rev. Dwight Andrews; and Eugene Rogers, University of Michigan associate director of choirs.

While there was much to say about Williams’ contribution as a composer and arranger for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others, many spoke of her nurturing qualities and how she helped, healed, and mentored other musicians. She would permit them to stay in her New York City apartment and prepared meals for some who struggled with addiction.

“I knew my aunt was famous,” said Ferguson. “And when she came to Pittsburgh to visit, I was about 13 . . . and I always expected to see her in furs, jewelry, and makeup. But she arrived in a simple housedress and usually got busy cleaning and cooking and helping family members.”

The cyber symposium has been archived and can be viewed at http://www.music.pitt.edu/blog/university-pittsburgh-host-cyber-sy140312