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Inst. of Jazz Studies Lands Major Collection
In June the Rutgers' Institute of Jazz Studies received the complete archival collection of Mary Lou Williams, the first woman to be considered a peer by the near-exclusive "men's club" of top-flight jazz artists. Amounting to around 170 boxes of materials, this collection is the largest now held by the Institute.
The Institute, housed in the John Cotton Dana Library on the Rutgers-Newark campus, is the largest archive of jazz and jazz related materials in the world. The Institute is fortunate to receive this nationally significant collection, which was actively sought by other prominent national institutions.
Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) was renowned in the jazz world for a number of talents and accomplishments. Her superlative piano skills were evident in her first professional engagements, in the late 1920s. Soon, Williams's composing and arranging talents led to her first important job with one of Kansas City's leading bands. Later, she was commissioned by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and other notable band leaders.
Credited as a major stride and blues player, she adapted to swing in its heyday in the 1930s and became an advocate of modern jazz and mentor to some of its leading proponents a decade later. In the words of Ellington, she was "perpetually contemporary." Williams formed her own music publishing company and record label in the 1960s.
Williams was also a noted humanitarian who started a foundation to assist needy musicians. After her conversion to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s, she began to compose religious works; her jazz Mass was performed at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and, as Mary Lou's Mass, became a staple in the repertory of the Alvin Ailey Ballet Company. In the last four years of her life, she was Artist in Residence at Duke University, where she taught jazz history, and continued to compose and perform.
The Institute received components of the Mary Lou Williams collection since shortly after her death in 1981. The IJS has assessed the overall value of the collection conservatively as $500,000. The remainder of the total 170 cubic feet of materials was donated in May after reaching terms for the formal Deed of Gift. The deed was signed in June by University Librarian Marianne Gaunt on behalf of the University and Fr. Peter O'Brien, Williams's manager and confidant for the last decade of her life and is executive director of the Williams Foundation.
The collection is unusually deep in recording Williams's personal and professional lives. Its richness and depth make it an unusual archival collection regardless of the activity being documented. Among the materials included are music manuscripts of some 350 of Williams's compositions and arrangements; correspondence; original artwork by Williams; financial and legal records; over 1,000 photographs and almost 30 scrapbooks; original, unique sound recordings and videotapes; and clippings, programs, posters, and other printed materials.
Interest in and use of the Mary Lou Williams collection has been substantial and sustained since 1981. The collection has been the source of four master's theses and Ph.D. dissertations, one short film, dance productions, and concerts by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, and Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Jazz Orchestra as well as a performance of her Mass at National Cathedral in Washington in April. Her importance to jazz and to female jazz musicians is underscored by the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival held at Washington's Kennedy Center. Items from the collection form the backbone of Mary Lou Williams: In Her Own Right, an exhibition opening in April 2000 at
Flushing Town Hall. Spring 2000 will also see the publication by Pantheon of the first full-length biography of Williams. Concerts of her music and symposia are planned in Flushing and at the Kennedy Center and other venues next year, which will mark her 90th birthday.
Posted August 31, 1999