NEWARK, N.J. – The Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies (IJS) could have broken out the candles to commemorate the centennial of Mary Lou Williams’ birth. But it had a better idea and instead will break open the riches of its extensive Mary Lou Williams Collection for a public exhibition celebrating the life of the renowned jazz pianist, composer and arranger.
“Mary Lou Williams –Perpetually Contemporary: A Centennial Exhibit” will celebrate the life of Williams, who is ranked in the “top group of jazz composers and arrangers that includes Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Charles Mingus and barely a handful of artists,” notes Annie Kuebler, IJS archivist and curator of the exhibition. “Through her music, Mary Lou Williams embraced all the eras of jazz in her lifetime,” with a musical repertoire including boogie-woogie, blues, swing, and be-bop.
The title of the exhibition is taken from Duke Ellington’s description of Mary Lou Williams as “perpetually contemporary.”
The exhibition will display items representing Williams’ decades-long career, drawn from the musician’s personal collection, including music manuscripts, photos, programs, posters, original artwork –including Williams’ art -- personal papers, jewelry and personal items, and other artifacts. It will on display Oct. 1 through Oct. 29 in the John Cotton Dana Library at Rutgers University, Newark, 185 University Ave., Newark, during regular library hours. Because of the size of the exhibition, it will be split between the first floor lobby and the fourth-floor gallery.
The entire Mary Lou Williams Collection was donated to the IJS between 1982 and 1999 by Williams’ longtime manager, Fr. Peter O’Brien, S.J. In 1999, IJS Director Dan Morgenstern observed, “The depth and breadth of the collection is amazing – everything from hand-written notes, to cocktail napkins on which nightclub patrons wrote song requests for Williams,” noting that the materials provide a “complete record of a fascinating, long and productive career.”
Williams is considered one of the most gifted but under-appreciated figures in jazz, and one of the first women in the field to be taken seriously by her male counterparts, according to Morgenstern.