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Mary Lou Williams

Guide for jazz pianist, arranger, and composer Mary Lou Williams

The Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies

The Mary Lou Williams Collection is a great collection of a great artist and the most used collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies since it opened to the public in 2002.


The first part of the collection came to the Institute shortly after Williams’s death in 1981. Father Peter O’Brien, S.J. donated the remainder of her papers and memorabilia in 1999, the year before National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Institute a Preservation and Access Grant to arrange and describe the collection. Processing was directed by the late Annie Kuebler, whose experience at Smithsonian Archives Center with the Duke Ellington Collection prepared her to undertake the task.


The collection documents her career as a pianist, composer, arranger, music publisher, independent record producer, humanitarian, and her time as an artist in residence at Duke University between 1977 and 1981. Music manuscripts representing around 350 of her compositions and arrangements and many unique sound recordings have drawn countless music scholars and musicians exploring the striking beauty of her music and stylistic changes Williams’s work embodies. Hundreds of pages of autobiographical writings and correspondence show her, whether consciously or not, to be a probing observer of her life as an independent African American woman as well as a progressive, vital figure on the jazz scene.


Photographs, scrapbooks, artwork, publications and clippings, fliers, posters, concert programs, financial and business records, and memorabilia convey the essence and wide-ranging nature of her activities over decades as well as experiences with other top-tier jazz musicians, who thought of her as a peer. Younger musicians, particularly women, saw her as the trailblazer she was.


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