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Sign O’ The Times: Mary Lou Williams’ ‘Zodiac Suite’ Rises In Akron

Mary Lou Williams, Theron Brown

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to call pianist, composer and bandleader Mary Lou Williams the Zelig of jazz. At every crucial turn of the music’s early history, she was on the scene writing, playing and teaching many of the most pivotal figures in mid-century jazz Yet the spotlight always evaded her.

No more. The recent efforts of the jazz establishment to recognize the achievements of women yield new and long-overdue revelations of her multi-valent genius, not just in the jazz capitals of the world, but in Northeast Ohio, too. Pianist Theron Brown and the Akron Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Christopher Wilkins add to the momentum Saturday with a concert presentation of five movements from Williams’ “Zodiac Suite.”

In many ways, the suite is emblematic of the triumphs and disappointments of Williams’ (1910-81) long and eventful career. Her compositions and arrangements for Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy were striking and influential and her pianism, starting from an edition of Duke Ellington’s pre-Orchestra Washingtonians small group to a recorded encounter with avant-garde piano icon Cecil Taylor was the equal of any man’s.

Yet Williams was a composer at heart and the “Zodiac Suite” was a culmination of sorts. Dedicated to musicians born under the 12 Western astrological signs, the suite was presented by Williams and a chamber orchestra at The Town Hall in New York on New Year’s Eve 1945. Yet to the blinkered ears of the time, the ambitious work was too jazzy for the classical music camp and too classical for jazz’s partisans, and it fell into obscurity.

Thankfully, the ancient genre borders are not so strictly policed these days, opening the field for musicians such as Brown and Wilkins to examine Williams’ music without bias.

“[She’s} so patient within the piece,” Brown (a Capricorn) said in a telephone conversation yesterday. “She’s well studied in European harmony, and she didn’t make a point of ‘Okay now this is jazz.’ You can hear the whole history of the music, but I’m also seeing the fundamental motions and chord voices.”

On the latter point, Brown’s ears are well equipped. In paralllel to his piano studies, the Zanesville native from an early age played the viola, an instrument that is most often in the middle of the harmony.

Brown’s experience as an orchestra player allows him to execute the tricky dance between orchestra and piano with rare deftness. It’s a quality that hasn’t escaped Wilkins (a Gemini), the ASO’s big-eared music director.

“Theron’s a superstar now,” Wilkins told me by phone. “”He’s humble, he’s loyal, he still considers himself just a young musician from Akron and we’ve now done quite a number of things together.” Those things include the ASO’s popular Gospel Meets Symphony programs, an emblem of Wilkins’ outward-directed concept of orchestra leadership. “If we want to represent community and be a voice for diversity in our area, they need to be involved in some kind of meaningful way. So we make it a real priority to do this in a way that incorporates and represents integrity of artists in our community.”

For Brown, Mary Lou Williams (a Taurus) is part of that broader community, the community of creators and leaders. “When you hear her [music], it’s like, Oh, that’s the backbone right there of the family, the jazz family.”

Brown will be joined by three members of his NEO jazz family: drummer Zaire Darden (Libra), bassist Aidan Plank (Pisces) and vocalist Evelyn Wright (Leo).

“There’s just something that women bring to everything in the world, which is why we need them,” Brown said “For [Williams] to be exposed in this way is what we needed, and we actually need more of it.”

Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite with Theron Brown and the Akron Symphony Orchestra, Christopher Wilkins, cond., Sat. Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m. at E.J. Thomas Hall 198 Hill Street, Akron. Tickets $15 – 60 available here.

NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.

Red beans and ricely yours,