Dudley House Jazz Band to perform rarely heard “Zodiac Suite”

2 min read

The Dudley House Jazz Band and Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) are proud to present Mary Lou Williams’s classic, rarely heard Zodiac Suite on Friday, Dec. 17, at 8 p.m. in Harvard’s Paine Hall. The concert will mark the first large ensemble performance of the work in 65 years. The event is free and open to the public.

Born in 1910, Mary Lou Williams was among the most influential of early jazz composers, arrangers and pianists. Her work ran the gamut of jazz styles, from her classic big band performances with Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, to her influence on the bebop generation of the 1940s, to her later work with sacred musical themes. In a jazz world that wasn’t always receptive to the contributions of women artists, Williams rose to a position of prominence through her singular abilities as a writer and performer.

The Zodiac Suite is one of Williams’s most ambitious compositions. Written in the mid-1940s, the piece is a landmark in the history of extended jazz composition. Scored for chamber orchestra with jazz rhythm section, the suite combines elements of jazz and classical music in twelve unique musical portraits, each inspired by a different sign of the Zodiac. After early performances with a piano trio, the fully orchestrated suite premiered on December 31, 1945, in New York’s Town Hall. Despite the concert’s success, these arrangements were never performed again.

In celebration of her 2010 centennial, the Dudley House Jazz Band — an ensemble of graduate students from GSAS — is proud to present the first large ensemble performance of Williams’s suite since its debut. The performance will feature new big band orchestrations of all twelve movements, based closely on Williams’s original 1945 parts. By using archival copies from the Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, the concert will even include movements omitted from the original 1945 performance, allowing listeners to hear Williams’s full musical vision for the first time.

This concert is made possible through the permission of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, which carries her legacy into the 21st century.