Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Broadside (Transcript): The hunt for a long-lost musical masterpiece

Anisa Khalifa: Perhaps more than any other artform, the 20th century was shaped by jazz. And piano player and composer Mary Lou Williams was there at nearly every turn. From the swing clubs of Kansas City to teaching students in her Harlem apartment.

Unidentified Speaker: I venture to say that she was the matriarch, the mother of the modern jazz movement.

Anisa Khalifa: In recent years, historians have documented and dissected her career and its big impact on American music. But the final chapter of her life — spent teaching at Duke University — has always been shrouded in mystery. Until now. I’m Anisa Khalifa. You're listening to the Broadside, where we tell stories from our home in North Carolina, at the crossroads of the South. Today, my colleague Jerad Walker tells us about one man’s journey to resurrect Mary Lou Williams’ final work.

Anisa Khalifa: What’s all this noise, Jerad?

Jerad Walker: That’s the sound of Biddle Music Building on the campus of Duke University here in Durham, NC. I don’t know if it’s always like this, but on the day I visited it was filled with this beautiful cacophony. A half dozen or so music students were in practice rooms and the noise was just spilling out into the hallways.

Anisa Khalifa: Honestly, it kind of reminds me of music classes growing up. So, what were you doing there?

Jerad Walker: I was there to chat with the hero of our episode today.

Can you introduce yourself? My name is… and what I do.

Anthony Kelley: My name is Anthony Kelley. I’m a professor of the practice of music at Duke University. I’m also a Composer in Residence with the North Carolina Symphony.

Jerad Walker: We met up at Anthony’s office. That’s where he told me a story that started during the beginning of the pandemic, when the halls outside of his door were completely silent. Like a lot of us, he was working from home at the time. And to pass the time, he started to watch a lot of movies. And he got a little obsessed with one in particular.

Anthony Kelley: So there's a documentary called Music on My Mind by Joanne Burke. It was made in 1990. And, um, I put the DVD on.

Jerad Walker: This film is about legendary jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. It follows her long career, which stretched from the early 1920s right up until her death in 1981. Mary Lou was instrumental in creating the sound of swing music and wrote for some of the most popular big band leaders of the 1930s and 40s. These were superstars — people like Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway. To give you an idea of the level, these were the Beyonce and Taylor Swift of their days. But she actually spent the last few years of her life teaching at Duke. And near the end of that movie, a scene filmed at the university caught Anthony’s attention.

Anthony Kelley: And I got, to this portion where my former band director, Paul Bryan, shows up on screen. And I thought, wow. P. B. is what we called him. P. B. is in this. And he's talking to the students and he's saying, Unfortunately, Mary Lou can't come to this rehearsal, so we'll just have to make this recording.

Jerad Walker: The documentary then cuts to Mary Lou Williams who was receiving treatment at nearby Duke Hospital.

Anthony Kelley: And there is Mary Lou Williams herself. She has a patch on her neck because she's going through cancer treatments. She's in bed, in a hospital bed, and she's listening to the playback of that recording. And she's kind of smiling, and she has a furrowed brow. I mean, she's working to the very end of her life on these excerpts.

Jerad Walker: And that’s when it hit him.

Anthony Kelley: And immediately, I'm thinking, wait, they're looking at scores, they're looking at parts. These have to be somewhere.

Anisa Khalifa: “These have to be somewhere.” What does he mean by that?

Jerad Walker: Nobody knew where this unfinished score was. This was Mary Lou Williams' final composition before her death. But it was never performed in public and never published. For over 40 years, it had been missing.

Anisa Khalifa: Oh my goodness.

Jerad Walker: Yeah! So today’s episode is about music. But it’s also a treasure hunt.

Anisa Khalifa: I love it. Let’s go.

Jerad Walker: By the way, that’s Grammy-nominated piano player Chris Pattishall. He wrote the score for today’s episode. Chris. Could you play something that would be like a scavenger hunt?

Chris Pattishall: Yeah.

Jerad Walker: So Anthony sat on this clue for a while. Life happened. The lockdowns ended, he went back to in-person teaching, and he took on some high profile work with the North Carolina Symphony. But last year, he started to think about the lost composition again. That’s when he shared the info with his friend Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant. She’s the Chair of Duke’s Music Department. She’s also the conductor of the university’s Wind Symphony.

Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant: So Anthony brought this to my attention and said I’m sure there must be fragments of this somewhere, perhaps in your office. And my office in this building is like a dungeon…

Anisa Khalifa: Why did they think that this music might be hidden in her office-slash-dungeon?

Jerad Walker: Well, Verena’s workspace is in the same office where Mary Lou Williams’ collaborator Paul Bryan — the guy in the documentary film — worked for decades. Ok, can you explain what we’re looking at here?

Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant: So we are looking at the dungeon or the cave as you described it. It’s a large office space with no windows. It’s very beige in color. There are several tables set up in the center which carry random things. But all around us are these file cabinets that are full of sheet music, and documents and papers that we have been collecting in this office since the 60s probably.

Jerad Walker: Is it okay if I open one?

Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant: You totally can open one…

Anthony Kelley: Yeah, we went through like file after file and score after score and you know, it was just great. It was like a walk down memory lane. Cause I used to help file those.

Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant: It was chaos, even more chaos than it is today. We took out one drawer after the other and tried to look for anything that looked like handwritten music. Just stacks and stacks of paper.

Jerad Walker: So not the most efficient filing system?

Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant: Uhh, not anymore…

Anisa Khalifa: Jerad, this is beginning to feel a little like a needle in a haystack kind of situation.

Jerad Walker: Pretty much. They didn’t find a single trace of Mary Lou’s music in those cabinets. It was a big setback. But Anthony wasn’t bummed out. If anything, he was more determined than ever to find the score.

Anthony Kelley: And, and there's a little selfish part of me, I'm not going to lie, there's a little selfish part of me that said, you know what, I, I got on this case, so I'm going to, I'm going to finish this case.

Anisa Khalifa: Okay, so he was committed — I can respect that. What was the next step?

Jerad Walker: Well he started tracking down people who were involved in the original project back in the late 70s and early 80s. And eventually a Duke alum who had played in the Wind Symphony gave him a tip. He told Anthony that he’d seen a box labeled with the number 23 or 27, he wasn’t entirely sure, and he said that box had some documents in it that he thought were related to Mary Lou Williams.

Anisa Khalifa: And he didn't know where this box was?

Jerad Walker: No.

Anisa Khalifa: That doesn’t seem very helpful.

Jerad Walker: You wouldn’t think so. But by this point in the search, Anthony had enlisted the help of some professionals at Duke’s Rubenstein Library. They have a massive collection of rare books and manuscripts and he suspected it might actually be located there.

Anisa Khalifa: As someone who’s done research in the Rubenstein Library before, that is a treasure trove of old documents and photographs. I mean, it’s just amazing.

Jerad Walker: Exactly. So in spring of 2023, Anthony set up an appointment there with Duke archivist Ani Karagianis.

Anthony Kelley: I walked in and Ani said, I think we have a box you're gonna like. She had looked in and she knew what was up. She said, I think we have something you're gonna like. And I said, oh no. And it's, it is a funny thing. I also kind of knew this was the day because I actually had my iPhone on. I was like, I, I video recorded myself. I'm gonna send you that audio….

Anthony Kelley: OK. I’m on my way to Rubenstein Library. They’ve got box number 27. Which I think might have the score in it.

Anisa Khalifa: Incredible instincts! So what did he find?

Jerad Walker: Something amazing. Something that got him so excited that he forgot to record his reaction.

Anisa Khalifa: Oh no! Okay let’s pick this up after a short break.

So… what did Anthony Kelley find?!

Jerad Walker: The mother lode.

Anthony Kelley: So, so Ani comes out with this gray box and, and, um, it's just box 23 or whatever. It has a number. When you open the top there's this Brown folder inside and it just said MLW slash history.

Anisa Khalifa: MLW. Does that stand for Mary Lou Williams?!

Jerad Walker: Yeah. And the word History was also written on it. That was the name of the lost composition. And inside that folder was more than just a fragment of one or two sections of music. It contained the broad strokes of an entire unfinished symphony. And it was a big idea. She was trying to create a sonic interpretation of the entire history of jazz in one piece of music.

Anisa Khalifa: Wow. How can you wrap your arms around that in a single composition?

Jerad Walker: It’s sprawling. Jazz music is intertwined with the history of Black American music. So the piece starts with a section inspired by slavery called “Suffering” and then that was followed by other sections titled “Spiritual,” “Ragtime” and “Gospel.” Just hundreds of years of music inspired her work.

Anisa Khalifa: That’s incredible. I feel like finding this kind of unfinished magnum opus must be pretty rare, right?

Jerad Walker: I had a lot of questions about that, too. So I reached out to Dr. Tammy Kernodle. She’s a renowned music historian and musicologist who teaches at Miami University in Ohio. Tammy literally wrote the book on Mary Lou Williams. How common is it to find a masterwork from a foundational musician like this that has been unseen for 40 years?

Tammy Kernodle: I'd like to tell you it's not — uncommon, but it is very common. It’s very common.

Anisa Khalifa: Huh!

Jerad Walker: Right?! I was shocked to hear that. But Tammy said that’s one of the reasons musicologists like her do what they do. They all hope to find stuff like that during their research. And it makes sense when you think about it. Musicians are constantly writing and they often leave unfinished pieces behind when they die. So every once in a while an academic does stumble upon something big. But what is unusual here is that this composition was known and people had been searching for it — actively — for a lot of years with no luck.

Tammy Kernodle: It’s a work that I have personally been in some ways trying to locate since the first time I went to the Mary Lou Williams archive in 1995. Scholars have been on this search for this piece for quite a while.

Jerad Walker: And Tammy also pointed out another important thing about this discovery — and that’s the timing.

Tammy Kernodle: I think the last 30 years has been a reassessment of Mary Lou Williams. My work has been part of that, that larger conversation about reclaiming her from the margins. And while we don't know her name, As readily as we might know, Duke Ellington or Benny, Benny Goodman or Dizzy Gillespie. These are all people that she not only had relationships with, professional relationships, but she also wrote for them.

Jerad Walker: And that reappraisal has also included a general acknowledgement that she served as a mentor and a teacher to many of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century. We’re talking about absolute giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk.

Tammy Kernodle: I venture to say she was the matriarch, the mother of the modern jazz movement.

Anisa Khalifa: So Anthony uncovered a pretty important piece of history here, pardon my pun.

Jerad Walker: Yeah, and that would’ve been a good enough story, right? But here’s where things get even more interesting. Anthony was determined to complete the work and he wanted to perform it at Duke where it originated.

Anthony Kelley: I had decided when I saw that big brown folder and how thick it was, I was like, ‘Oh, I'm going to do this now.’ As soon as I saw that it said MLW/history and that whole folder was dedicated to it, I was definitely going to do this.

Anisa Khalifa: Okay. Whoa, whoa whoa. This wasn’t finished, right?

Jerad Walker: At the time of her death she had completed maybe half of it.

Anisa Khalifa: So how exactly do you do that?

Jerad Walker: Very carefully.

Anthony Kelley: She's so brilliant and so advanced as a harmonic and orchestral thinker. That the hardest part was when she would throw a curveball at my kind of conservative, classical training. So the hardest thing is making those executive decisions and knowing, you know, she probably would have one-upped me on some of this, you know, I'm, I'm being a little safe.

Jerad Walker: But he did his research — everything he could to try to emulate Mary Lou’s writing style. He read books and articles that had been written about her. He studied old rehearsal tapes that were found in that box at the Rubenstein Library. And he listened to all of her recordings, even a TV appearance she made on Mister Rogers Neighborhood in 1973.


Unidentified Speaker: Come on in, Fred. I want you to meet my friend. This is Mary Lou Williams, Fred Rogers.

Mary Lou WIlliams: Hi.

Unidentified Speaker: And this is Milton Suggs.

Fred Rogers: Hi. Hi Milton. Fred Rogers.

Anisa Khalifa: That was delightful. But did it help?

Jerad Walker: Sort of. Some of the composition was completely finished –– Anthony’s pretty sure the first section was done. But other parts were riddled with holes. And he said Mary Lou had a habit of leaving behind really unhelpful and cryptic notes.

Anthony Kelley: I'll give you an example… a few pages in, there's three clarinet parts. Harmonies of each other. Only clarinet. There's no other instruments or anything. It's just this 16 bar thing. It just says ragtime, and it says, Who Stole the lock off the hen house door in parentheses. Like she's taking it from some folks tune or something that she had written before or something.

Anisa Khalifa: That sounds like a riddle. Which I guess is appropriate given that this started as a treasure hunt.

Jerad Walker: Yeah. At some points, this is just informed guesswork. But after months and months of working on this, he was happy with the result. So he reached out again to his friend Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant and they began rehearsals with the Duke Wind Symphony. That’s when I was there, during the final week of rehearsals before a big public performance.

Anisa Khalifa: Why do you think he was so driven to do this?

Jerad Walker: I asked him about that. He said there were two things that excited him about the project. Part of it was kind of selfish. He got obsessed with it and simply wanted to hear it. But he also had a deeper motivation.

Anthony Kelley: The second thing I'm excited about is the possibility that someone who didn't know as much about Mary Lou Williams or is kind of casually kind of interested in the concert might really get, you know, the fire lit about how wonderful she is and how wonderful her music is and how wonderful a final work by her would be that that that possibility that, you know, somebody is going to be as excited about her as I have been in the past year. It is just kind of one of the miracles of what she's left us with.

Anisa Khalifa: So with all of these moving pieces and so much work on the line — how was he feeling before the performance?

Jerad Walker: I think he was relieved that it was almost over. I think he poured everything he had into it.

Are you nervous?

Anthony Kelley: Not at all. I'm not at all. Uh, no, I, uh, yeah, there was a guy, uh, an old composer from Europe named Edgar Verres. They used to ask him, are you an experimental composer? He said, ‘I did all my experimentation before you ever got to the concert hall.’ So I can relate to that. It's been a year. It's been a long time working on this. There's nothing to be nervous about at this point. Because I did the work I needed to do. Now, it's up to them. I'm outsourcing now.

Jerad Walker: Almost a full year after Anthony Kelley discovered Mary Lou Williams’ long lost History, the piece debuted at a packed concert hall in Durham, North Carolina. Verena was there conducting the Duke Wind Symphony, with over 60 musicians, including a trio of jazz artists and soloists.

Anisa Khalifa: And did they get the payoff they were hoping for? Was it all worth it?

Jerad Walker: I thought it was incredibly powerful and poetic that it ended where it began. And I’m not alone — they got a 2 minute standing ovation at the end of the performance.

How does it feel to see the culmination of over 40 years of work?

Anthony Kelley: I think based on this performance, that she would be pleased that everybody is now really fully invested in her music, her memory, there's so much of her all over this piece, and I heard her spirit come alive through the tubas, through the bassoons, through the harp. It was magic. So I, I can't imagine she would be any less pleased than I am because it's a full fulfillment of her vision at the end. Right?

Anisa Khalifa: If you want to watch video of the performance of Mary Lou Williams’ History by the Duke Wind Symphony, we’ve dropped a link in this week’s show notes. This episode of The Broadside was produced by Jerad Walker. It was edited by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our executive producer is Wilson Sayre. Special thanks goes out to Chris Pattishall. Chris was the featured pianist during the performance. Incredibly, he wrote and recorded most of the score for this episode as an improvisation during a 15 minute break before a rehearsal.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or share it with a friend! I’m Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.