Mary Lou Williams Gender & Jazz

Educator resources

Join jazz saxophonist and Assistant Professor of Jazz and Applied Saxophone at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Josiah Boornazian, for this exciting webinar.

Since at least the 1940s, jazz musicians, scholars, journalists, and historians have expressed ambivalent and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward pianist, composer, and educator Mary Lou Williams. Though she undeniably experienced significant hardships throughout her career at least in part due to gender-based discrimination, Williams has also been recognized and celebrated as an important figure in jazz history in a variety of ways since at least the 1970s. Recent scholarly and mainstream discourses dedicated to Williams reveal an apparent widespread tendency within jazz culture to celebrate the pianist as a noteworthy historical figure at least in part due to her gender, and some institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center have tried to demonstrate that jazz culture reflects certain currently prevalent progressive values, namely diversity, equity, and inclusion. Such narratives encounter the problem that jazz culture has historically been a male-dominated field that has rarely treated its female practitioners equitably. The contradictions between the apparent facts of jazz history and more recent narratives celebrating the contributions of women such as Williams raise important and potentially uncomfortable historiographical and ethical questions for the jazz community. This article suggests that practical trial-and-error efforts aimed at actively engaging more women performers in jazz culture might be more promising projects for institutions as opposed to investing resources in continuously attempting to revise narratives about the role of women in jazz history, regardless of whether the aim of historical analysis is to point out past sexism or to try to obfuscate it or atone for it.