Griffin to speak on life of female jazz musician

Jazz and the blues have undoubtedly left their stamp on American music today, as well as the American cultural landscape in general. Fortunately for the Vassar community, Columbia University's Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies Farah Griffin will be shedding light on "the genre's far-reaching effects in her upcoming lecture.
Titled "Soul on Soul: Imagining Mary Lou Williams," Professor Griffin will speak on Tuesday, March 29, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in Taylor Hall 203.

Griffin's lecture will delve into the life and career of Mary Lou Williams, a successful composer, arranger and jazz piano musician during the 1920s and '30s. Griffin will be discussing films, paintings and fiction that convey Williams' life and her effect on the jazz movement as a whole.
"Williams was exceptional because her talent eclipsed the dual oppressions of sexism and racism, which together have limited the life options of many black women and women of color throughout the 20th century. She was a black woman composing when women were nearly non-existent in that realm of musical production," said Vassar's Assistant Professor of English Eve Dunbar, who is helping to organize the event.

Unlike many other black women involved with jazz, Williams was able to assert herself as a jazz musician rather than as a jazz vocalist. "In some sense, she was exceptional because she had complete control over the music she played because she created it," Dunbar continued, and "she produced over 100 records, played for decades and was able to stay relevant because she wrote and arranged her own music." Williams worked with and arranged alongside musicians like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and was a mentor, friend and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

While Williams has been extremely inspiring for other musicians, her work has definitely affected artistic expression outside of the music world as well. Griffin's lecture will depict Williams' status in contemporary American history as iconic beyond the scope of musicianship.
"Professor Griffin will no doubt multi-disciplinarily and multi-textually explore the ways in which art and artists speak to one another through various forms. And I think Williams provides an interesting entry point for exploring creativity in a dynamic way, a way that acknowledges how intersecting the world is," said Dunbar.

"Even though Williams was a jazz musician, what might it mean that she influenced others to paint and write and create other texts? It speaks not only to the power of music to inspire, but also to the role of genius in all of our creative lives," Dunbar furthered.

According to Dunbar, the lecture will be extremely relevant to the Vassar community because it "will speak to a variety of topics: fiction, film, painting, racial and gender politics, history, music history and music." "I imagine a great cross-section of the campus will find something to sink their teeth into with this lecture topic, especially since it's being presented by a dynamic thinker like Farah Griffin," she added. Williams' career is inspiring to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider within society, and has worked to overcome their otherness and dismantle a rigid social order.

While Williams' career is specifically representative of the jazz movement, it also speaks to proclivities of greater black musical tradition. "I think she was someone who had a long career because she refused to be pigeonholed, she allowed her music to develop and change as the times and her interests developed and changed," said Dunbar. "In that sense, her career might be said to fall in line with a black musical tradition that is best characterized by the ability to change and grow.

Griffin's lecture will, in many ways, parallel some of Vassar's most significant values. Vassar has long encouraged and celebrated women's history and artistic expression, an inclination that is clearly evident within the student body. The lecture has clear potential to inspire audiences as Griffin is obviously a powerful and dynamic figure. It will no doubt be a great way for students and faculty to hear about the life of an individual who embodies these values, and how she managed to succeed while maintaining them.