|Editor's Note: Last year Metro Connection ran this story because we were
outraged by the invisibility of black women at The Mary Lou Williams Women in
Jazz Festival. This is an event coordinated by a publicly funded institution,
the Kennedy Center, and named after a creative black woman to celebrate an
artform, jazz, that was born out of and shaped by a uniquely black
experience. We share this story now with the members of our "blacknet"
community because not much has changed this year.
The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival continues through [May 12] in
Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. This three-day affair, co-sponsored by BET
on Jazz, is billed as a celebration of the contributions women in jazz have
made to its development and also as a recognition of some of its best
Jazz, a uniquely American cultural art form comes out of the African-American
experience. And Williams (1910-1981) was one of the pioneering black women
who struggled to define her space and breakdown barriers for black
performers. It is perplexing then to find black women in the minority in a
festival dedicated to the memory and spirit of this great African-American
jazz pianist, composer, bandleader, arranger and educator. Trudy Pitts and
Nicole Yarling are the only two African-American women included the line-up
of 15 headliners. (In the 2001 edition of the festival things have improved
some. There are five African-American women among the 14 headliners.)
The pool of talented African-American jazz women is extensive so their
absence is a significant omission and public institutions like the Kennedy
Center must be challenged when they fail to reflect the depth and breadth of
our continuing contributions to the arts.
In response to the near invisibility of black women in this year's Mary Lou
Williams Women In Jazz Festival, letters have been written to Lawrence
Wilker, President of the Kennedy Center (the new president is Michael M.
Kaiser) and the sentiments are consistent.
"For two years in a row, this festival has been a platform for imbalance
between American women of color in performance jazz and American women of
European derivation...I am dismayed, infuriated, and saddened by this
presentation and the blatant, insensitive cultural expropriation that it
represents," writes Tony Regusters. "Certainly, jazz is an American music, a
richly American experience, but the music and Mary Lou Williams, are products
and children of the African-American community; and your program, beyond the
wonderful fact that you are honoring the late Ms. Williams, does not reflect
In her correspondence, CeLillianne Green commends the Center for naming the
"Jazz Festival in honor of the pioneering and courageous work of Ms. Mary Lou
Williams...However, it is shameful," she writes, "to hold such a festival
with a lineup of performers that suggest women of Ms. William's heritage,
barely exist or are not talented enough to perform at the Kennedy Center."
She goes on to point out just how disheartening it is that African-American
women jazz performers must continue to fight battles Williams and other
musical foremothers waged to get their music heard in venues like the Kennedy
Center. "If this failure to include significant numbers of African-American
women continues, the only connection an African-American women will have to
the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival is the photograph of Ms. Williams in the
advertisements," Green continues.
Another writer, who prefers to maintain her anonymity, writes that she was
shocked when she saw the advertising for the festival. "It is a travesty to
conduct a festival in [Mary Lou Williams'] name and ignore legions of
accomplished and emerging black jazz women. If this omission was on purpose
the Kennedy Center has a very serious problem indeed. Likewise, if it was
inadvertent, the Kennedy Center has a very serious problem...Were the
producers unable to `find any qualified' black women musicians - the old
tired [statement] used over and over again to deny inclusion of blacks in
most aspects of American life?"
She concludes her letter to Wilker with a sentiment shared by many in this
community, "Please know that the Kennedy Center has a long way to go to be
accepted in the black community as an institution of representation of
If you would like to share a comment about this or any other programs at the
Kennedy Center you may reach the administrative office at 202-416-8000 or by