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Mary Lou Williams cut an enormous figure in jazz history. From 1924, when she began playing piano in public (at the age of 14) to her Carnegie Hall duet with avant-garde titan Cecil Taylor in 1977, Williams was involved in every development in the music. She was a pioneering broadcaster, one of jazz’s most sought-after composers and arrangers, and finished her career as a musical educator at Duke University.
But Williams’ name is not well known outside of the jazz aficionados, in large part because jazz isn’t popularly associated with women.
How better to combat that than with the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, which the Kennedy Center has held every May since 1996? Tellingly, its founder —- jazz director Dr. Billy Taylor —- had a tough time getting it started, telling City Paper earlier this year that “when I told them I wanted to do a women’s jazz festival, they didn’t believe I’d find enough women to justify a big feature. I was able to immediately give them a list of 100 women.”
Since then, however, it’s become a major event in the institution’s calendar, a regular showcase for innovators and virtuosi like bandleader Maria Schneider, clarinetist Anat Cohen, and young bassist Esperanza Spaulding, all of whom are on this year’s schedule.
That schedule, by the way, starts tonight, and continues to Saturday. It’ll be recapped here by yours truly.