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Bright Stars of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra Features Pianist and Composer Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams

The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra is proud to announce the premiere video recording of its performance of pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams’s Zodiac Suite. The recording will be released on YouTube Premiers on Thursday, May 6 at 6pm CST as the centerpiece of KCJO’s virtual concert and fundraiser entitled “Bright Stars of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.” Recorded and filmed during the pandemic, this original big band arrangement by the KCJO’s director Clint Ashlock is both a testament to the brilliance of Williams’s seminal composition and the sound of Kansas City today.

Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981) was one of the towering figures in jazz history. Although she is less well-known than her male contemporaries like Count Basie, she was one of the swing era’s most influential composers and a central figure in bebop’s development. Williams moved to Kansas City in 1929 with her husband John, who played saxophone in Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy. Barely out of her teens, Williams dove into Kansas City’s legendary scene, where giants like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young held court. She quickly gained notoriety as a formidable pianist. In 1931 she became the Clouds of Joy’s pianist and arranger, writing several of the band’s most popular songs.

Williams left Kirk’s band in 1942 and settled in New York in 1943, where she composed the Zodiac Suite. Although Williams wasn’t steeped in astrology, she used the personality characteristics attributed to each zodiac sign to write complex and innovative musical portraits of the twelve signs, which she then dedicated to friends and colleagues such as Billie Holiday (Aries) and Duke Ellington (Taurus). She recorded the suite in 1945 with her trio and despite being a wholly singular work of genius, it is rarely performed.

Arranging music originally written for a piano trio for a big band presented Ashlock with several tasks. It required remaining true to Williams’s harmonies, melodies, and her musical personality while writing for a twenty-first-century ensemble. Following Williams, Ashlock used the zodiac signs’ traits as a guide, matching the music with the personalities of the KCJO’s members. He notes that “it wasn’t like me projecting this onto the guys in the band. Tenor saxophonist Doug Talley is a Virgo. His personality is this kind of shy and reserved. Drummer John Kizilarmut (Aries) will go to the mat with you over anything. He loves conflict. There wasn’t a single person that I was like ‘oh man, this does not fit you.’ It was very easy to fit them in to those themes.”

The KCJO’s Zodiac Suite strikes a poised balance between Williams’s original music and Ashlock’s interpretation and treatment of it; between soloists and the ensemble; between the past, present, and future of Kansas City jazz, upon which Williams left an indelible mark. Ultimately, Ashlock felt that “with this we should really try and present something lasting because Mary Lou Williams should be everybody’s hero.” By sharing Williams’s music with new audiences, Ashlock and the KCJO have indeed made something of lasting significance.

More information on the KCJO’s performance of the Zodiac Suite can be found online at www.kcjo.org/bright-stars.

– Chris Robinson

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