Farah Jasmine Griffin

Farah Jasmine Griffin is professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University. She is the author of “Who Set You Flowin’?:” The African-American Migration Narrative (Oxford University Press, 1995); If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (The Free Press, 2001); and co-author of Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever (Thomas Dunne Books, 2008) with Salim Washington.



"Playing through the Changes: Mary Lou Williams' Manhattan"

Mary Lou Williams moved to New York in the Spring of 1943 after having spent close to 15 years on the road as the pianist and primary composer/arranger for the Andy Kirk band. New York inspired and enabled her compositional energies. The crowds, the vibrancy and the excitement found its way into her music. The city’s institutions, its libraries, museums and performance venues provided the fuel that fed her creative fires. The marriage of progressive political activism and innovative art forms provided a space for her creative growth and political maturation. In other words, the city served as an incubator for the further development of her inherent musical gifts, her spiritual sensibilities and her desire for social justice.

It is during this period that we see the beginnings of the spiritual/musical and activist flowering that would occur in later decades. Her Hamilton Terrace apartment was a space that nurtured her own creativity and that of her fellow artists. Her salon hosted a variety of artists, especially those who would become the primary architects of bebop. During her early years in New York, she embarked upon a phase of her life characterized by fecund creativity, grounding in place and community. During these years she composed the Zodiac Suite, which was performed at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, hosted her own New York based radio show, and played nightly at Café Society. A consideration of Williams first period in New York informs new understandings of the relationship between Harlem and Greenwich Village, of the history of BeBop, of the role of the city’s institutions in furthering and ultimately limiting the career of this one artist.