Fabu has been on a mission to keep alive the legacy of Mary Lou Williams, the legendary pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and educator whose career spanned and influenced every era of jazz history. Madison's third poet laureate will be presenting “Remember Me: Jazz Genius Mary Lou Williams in Poetry,” a multi-media theatrical presentation centering on readings from her new book of Williams-inspired poetry on Oct. 11 at the Overture Center for the Arts.
“It's my father's birthday and the little girl who will playing the child Mary Lou — Trinity Middlebrook — it's her father's birthday, too,” Fabu tells The Madison Times in an interview at the Overture Center. “October 11 has a lot of meaning.”
The program is dedicated to the memory of Fabu’s father, the late Herman Grant Carter, a United States Army Sergeant retired, and a great jazz buff. Fabu's dad was from New York City and he came from a background of really appreciating jazz music.
“When I was a little girl, my father always loved jazz. He was stationed [for the Army] in France outside of Paris and on Saturday he would play jazz records. Being on a based it was pretty isolated. At the time in the 60s, jazz was really, really popular in Europe, so in Paris people really loved the jazz artists and loved the jazz musicians.”
Fabu was at the library one day in 1999 and she saw a book in the new book section titled “What's Your Story, Morning Glory?,” a new biography abut Mary Lou Williams. “I actually called my dad from the library as I checked the book out and said, 'You never told me about Mary Lou!'” Fabu remembers. “I had always felt like my dad was my education in jazz. I had heard of many great women in jazz, but they were singers. They were not performers... and that made [Mary Lou Williams] very unique. But to also learn that she was a composer and an arranger ... that was amazing. My dad knew of her and we talked about her and what she contributed.”
Fabu has been on the road to Mary Lou ever since.
Fabu liked Mary Lou’s biography so much that she asked local pianist Jane Reynolds if she had heard of her. Reynolds sent Fabu her music and she began writing poetry with the same titles as her compositions. Reynolds and Fabu collaborated on an Isthmus Jazz Festival event. “I wrote 16 poems that had the same title as Mary Lou Williams' compositions,” Fabu remembers. “Jane played the music and I did the poems and we wove the music in and around the poetry.”
Reynolds and Fabu have played other engagements, and both ended up serving as artistic co-directors for Madison’s Mary Lou Williams Centennial Celebration, a series of 52 programs in a variety of artistic genres that reached over 8,000 people during 2010.
Fabu followed this highly successful celebration with research into the life of Mary Lou Williams with a fellowship grant from Madison’s Mary Lou Williams Centennial Committee. Fabu was able to travel to significant places in Mary Lou Williams’ life. Fabu’s fellowship took her to Atlanta where Mary Lou was born, Pittsburgh where she grew up and is buried, and Kansas City where she was a major influence on the musical development of the Swing Era.
“In Pittsburgh, I was able to talk to Mary Lou's sisters, her neice, and her manager,” Fabu says. “It was an amazing experience for me. I went to Westinghouse High School that she attended, saw the clubs where she played and looked into the similar faces of her family members. ”
Fabu went to Harlem, New York, where Mary Lou lived, performed and mentored the musicians who pioneered Bebop, to Duke University, and to the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.
“I spent considerable time examining the Mary Lou Williams Collection at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and Harlem where she played and lived,” Fabu says. “I ended up in North Carolina at Duke University where she was a music professor. That is where she died.
Fabu was able to thoroughly research Mary Lou — she went to all the places that she went, touched her papers, and talked to her family and friends. “I'm saying that this woman deserves to be among the great jazz artists,” Fabu says. “She deserves to be remembered for the complexity and beauty of her music and for having such a strong spirit.”
Fabu’s travels inspired her to compose a vast body of new poetry that reflects Ms. Williams’ life and music. These new works have been collected in Fabu’s book, “Mary Lou Williams: Remember Me,” the first book of poetry ever written about the life and music of this jazz genius, a musician whose career spanned and influenced nearly every era of jazz history.
“I really wanted Mary Lou and the poetry to come alive so I chose two great actresses — Trinity Middlebrook to play the child and Theola Carter to play the adult Mary Lou,” Fabu says. “It will be a multi-senstory experience.”
“Remember Me: Jazz Genius Mary Lou Williams in Poetry,”will be an exciting performance of new poems about Mary Lou Williams' life from her new book of poetry. The program also includes a book signing by Fabu and Ms. Williams’ compositions played by well-known pianist Jane Reynolds and bassist Nick Moran.
“I would love to be able to raise awareness about Mary Lou Williams and about artists in general,” adds Fabu, the 2013 Bronze winner of “Best in Madison-Poetry” and the 2012 Woman of Distinction in the Arts “It can still be difficult to be an artist in this day and age. There have been a lot of articles about the decline in artistic support because of the recession. But art is so important. Art helps us to not just live better but to learn better because it's a reflection of who we are; it's the essence of how we learn ... we learn through our creativity.
“Remember Me: Mary Lou Williams, A Poetry Performance by Fabu,” is supported in part by Overture Center’s Community Arts Access Program and made possible by grants from Madison’s Mary Lou Williams Centennial Committee, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission, the Madison Arts Commission, as well as gifts from Full Compass and local patrons of the literary and performing arts in the Greater Madison community.
“I hope people come and have a wonderful experience. I do want Mary Lou Williams to live on. It's been a great journey for me on the road to Mary Lou,” Fabu says. “On that road, I've really learned more about myself as an artist and that all artists need to persevere.... keep creating; keep doing what you're doing. Don't give up. Don't ever give up.”
“Mary Lou Williams: Remember Me: A Poetry Performance by Fabu” will be held Friday, Oct. 11, 7-9:30 p.m. at Promenade Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St.
Madison’s Mary Lou Williams Centennial Committee is pleased to invite community members of all ages to a special new program in which the life and musical genius of Jazz pianist, arranger, and composer Mary Lou Williams come alive in performance of new original works by Madison’s Third Poet Laureate, Fabu Phillis Carter (known professionally as Fabu).
The event is free. For more information, e-mail Fabu at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fabu is still raising money for the costs of the event. If interested in contributing, send check or credit card to Arts Wisconsin with a memo for Fabu Project.
mailing address: P.O. Box 1054, Madison, WI 53701-1054