The Zodiac Suite by Mary Lou Williams

January 11, 2011 at 5:34 pm 4 comments

Until last month, no one had heard a large-ensemble concert performance of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite in nearly sixty-five years.  This twelve-movement composition–one for each sign of the astrological calendar–originally premiered at New York’s Town Hall on December 30, 1945.  It featured Williams and her combo, accompanied by a small orchestral ensemble.

Here is a recording of “Cancer” from a live recording of the of the concert.  The movement features the inimitable Ben Webster on tenor saxophone:

“Cancer” from premiere concert (1945)

Like most jazz-classical experiments, critics didn’t quite know how to deal with the Williams suite.  Was it jazz? Was it Classical?  One review in the New York Times stated: “The piano’s part was largely that of the old ‘continuo’ in the early music… The composition was scarcely a jazz piece at all, making its appeal as more serious work—how successfully time will tell.”*

Time has told. “The number of performances of the suite can be counted on two hands,” says Michael Heller, PhD candidate in music at Harvard University, “and only Geri Allen has performed it in its entirety.”  All subsequent performances, including those of Geri Allen, have been in trio or small-combo format.  That is, they represent a significant reduction of the version heard at the 1945 premiere

Heller recently took over as director of Harvard’s Dudley House Jazz Band.** To mark the 2010 centenary of Mary Lou Williams’ birth, he decided to undertake a full-ensemble revival of the Zodiac Suite. Heller first encountered Zodiac while working as a DJ during his undergraduate days and became familiar with the Mary Lou Williams archive while working on his masters degree at Rutgers.  This past summer he contacted the Williams archive and discovered that they had the original parts from the 1945 premiere–parts that had not seen the light of day in a long, long time.

After receiving permission from Father Peter O’Brian, keeper of the Williams estate, Heller began the long process of arranging the suite for the Harvard ensemble.  The original orchestrations include parts for strings, bassoon, tuba, bass clarinet, and oboe–none of which are a part of the traditional jazz-band make up of the Dudley House ensemble.  Over the course of several weeks, Heller prepared the suite to fit the needs of the ensemble.  This process was not as simple as re-assigning the bassoon parts to the baritone saxophone, for example.  The textures and timbres of the original arrangements–which have yet to receive significant musicological consideration–were carefully selected by Williams and her collaborator, Milton Orent (who also conducted the premiere).***  Heller had to maintain the artistry of the original, while infusing the work with an extra level of musical interest (and challenges) for both his performers and eventual audience.

I had the honor playing the piano with the Dudley House Jazz Band at the December 19, 2010 concert.  One of my favorite sections of the suite is the opening buildup of “Gemini.”  In this movement, Williams establishes a foundation that sets an ascending C-major triad against a descending d-minor triad.  The melody, scalar in its design, is constructed through the piecemeal addition of individual instruments.  It is an exciting crescendo.  Listen to the following clips, the first from the 1945 premiere and the second from our concert.

“Gemini” from premiere concert (1945)

“Gemini” as performed by Dudley House Jazz Band (2010)

It is also a moment that nicely highlights Heller’s creative recasting of original parts amongst his ensemble.  I’ll highlight one particularly creative aspect:  After the piano, bass, and guitar establish the C-major against D-major pattern, the trombones join.  Rather than simply play straight arpeggios, however, Heller divided the two chords across the four trombone players.  Stands 1 and 2 play the ascending C-major chord and stands 3 and 4 play the descending d-minor chord.  In both cases, they alternate notes over the course of the measure.  Trombone 1 plays “C” on beat 1 and “G” on beat 3; Trombone 2 plays “E” on beat two and “C” on beat 4.  Likewise, Trombone 3 plays “D” on beat 1 and “F” on beat 3; Trombone 4 plays “A” on beat 2 and “D” on beat 4.  The result is a sonic and visual kaleidoscope.

The task of re-orchestrating and and re-arranging took Heller an average of eight hours per movement.  However, movements such as “Aquarius” took significantly longer.  According to Heller, there were many errors and discrepancies in the original parts.  Perhaps this accounts for the particularly shaky rendition of this movement at the 1945 premiere performance.  Listen to the following clips.

“Aquarius” from premiere concert (1945)

“Aquarius” as performed by Dudley House Jazz Band (2010)

The movement calls for instrumental accompaniment from the start.  However, either due to the previously mentioned errors in the parts or inadequate rehearsal time, Williams had to play much of this movement on her own.  When the ensemble does play on the 1945 recording, as you can hear, they struggle.  For example, the musicians miss their entrance at :47, forcing Williams to comp until they catch up.  The correct entrance as intended by the original arrangements is heard at 1:17 of the 2010 recording.

The Zodiac Suite remains appealing to me both as a pianist and as a musicologist.  I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Mary Lou Williams’ pianistic and compositional style over the course of the past semester and plan further investigations into her work.  Thank you to Mike Heller and Father Peter O’Brian for making this enjoyable experience possible.


* C.L., “Mary Lou Williams Plays ‘Zodiac Suite’,” New York Times, 31 December 1945, p. 12

** This is the same ensemble that premiered Duke Ellington’s 1932 arrangement of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 2009.

*** Chapters in two recent biographies of Williams discuss the preparation and reception of the Zodiac Suite: Tammy Lynn Kernodle’s Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams and Linda Dahl’s Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams. Both provide a brief analysis of each movement, but do not discuss the arrangements themselves.  There remains a great deal of uncertainty about how much of the arrangements were prepared by Williams versus Orent.

Entry filed under: archives, musicology, Review, Ryan Raul Bañagale. Tags: , , , , , , .

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  • 1. Joe  |  January 19, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Interesting work! Ironic that this performance is perhaps the last time the suite will represent the complete zodiac.

  • 2. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  January 20, 2011 at 7:06 am

    I don’t know how much the zodiac has actually changed, but it might be fun for the Mary Lou Williams estate should run a composition competition for the supposed 13th sign! I’d be curious to hear how people think Ophiuchus (the serpent bearer) would sound. The Capricorn movement is already rather snake-like. What is the sound of that being carried, I ask (in half seriousness)?

  • 3. bob  |  April 13, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Why hasn’t the original orchestral recording been reissued?

  • 4. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  April 14, 2011 at 8:05 am

    Hello Bob,
    One reason that comes to mind is that the performance quality varies quite a bit on the original live recording. The ensemble gets lost at several points, plays wrong notes at others. Nonetheless, the recording captures some wonderful performances–not only Williams’ piano playing but also the inimitable Ben Webster on tenor saxophone. Another reason, sadly, may be that there just isn’t a big enough market to make a reissue worth the financial investment. Thanks for reading!


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