Zodiac Suite Fosters Community Partnerships

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2022.23 Season, Around Town, Partners

A new work on the Milwaukee Symphony’s Classics subscription series also represents an opportunity to celebrate both an iconic art form as well as a hugely influential jazz composer with the community.

The MSO presents the Midwest premiere of Zodiac Suite May 26-28. Composer Mary Lou Williams wrote the 12 short pieces for jazz trio in 1945, but pianist Aaron Diehl, the symphony’s artistic partner, has been a champion of the Jeffrey Sultanof and Rob Duboff arrangement for orchestra that she originally envisioned.

The Zodiac Suite is being paired on the program with another orchestral suite based on the heavens: Gustav Holst’s The Planets, a pillar of the classical repertoire. Rebecca Whitney, the symphony’s director of education, expects that many in the audience will come specifically for one piece or the other, but she hopes they enjoy the whole program. “That’s the hope, that we draw a more diverse crowd in terms of race and age,” she said.

The symphony has created its own resource page for the performances, but the main stage programming will also be extended into collaborations with two new partners for the MSO: the Youth Jazz Ensemble of UW-Milwaukee and the Milwaukee Public Library. The project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Speaking of Williams, Whitney said dryly, “I’d never heard of her before, for all the reasons we know about.” A Black female jazz composer faced an uphill path in the mid-20th century.

But Rosemary Walzer, the director of UWM’s Youth Jazz Ensemble, also known as UJAY, is delighted to see Williams getting some extra attention. “Mary Lou Williams is an unsung hero,” she said. “She really shaped the bebop movement, and she was a mentor for people like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. After gigs, they would go to her house and play for each other, and it was a positive, constructive environment. For her not to be mentioned in the same breath with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker is a disservice.”

The week of the concert, Diehl will give a master class for Walzer’s students, who audition for the UWM program from local high schools. Afterward, the group will attend the final rehearsal for the concert. And on Saturday night, UJAY will play selections by Williams and Duke Ellington in the Ellen & Joe Checota Gallery of the Bradley Symphony Center for early arrivals before the concert begins.

“They’re really excited for this opportunity,” Walzer said. Most have not been to the Bradley Symphony Center before, and “it’s an opportunity to play in a new space for a different audience. Jazz rubs elbows with so many musical genres. It’s brilliant for the MSO to program a work by a woman and a person of color with such a heavy hitter on the second half.”

“As we settle into the space, we’re thinking about how to use it in more and different ways, and appeal to a broader audience,” said Whitney. “It’s a fantastic opportunity to see how this works, with hopes of doing more. It’s a way to let young people experience the symphony in a way they probably never have.”

The symphony also collaborated with the Milwaukee Public Library and offered five story hours themed to the concert at branch locations across the city. Story hours are part of most library branches’ regular programming, but for the tie-in to Zodiac Suite, a librarian read books about jazz music and identity, such as The Little Piano Girl, a children’s picture book biography of Mary Lou Williams, and MSO musicians performed.

The library has also put together a list of further reading, and saxophonist Johnny Padilla curated a playlist of jazz music from Williams’s era on the library’s website. “This was a really great opportunity for us to partner with the MSO, and to point out the resources that the library has all the time for any topic,” said adult programming coordinator Kelly Bolter. The library has also loaned the MSO photos relating to the history of jazz in Milwaukee from its archive collection.

“The symphony is such a rich cultural resource in Milwaukee, and we’re neighbors” in the downtown area, Bolter said. “I would be excited – I would be jazzed – to partner again.”