The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and Artistic Partner Aaron Diehl present Mary Lou William’s Zodiac Suite

Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981): was an African-American composer and jazz pianist. In addition to producing her own works, she arranged for Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and Andy Kirk – among others. She also collaborated with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy Tate.

Mary Lou Williams Biography

Mary Lou Williams Live at the Newport Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall, NY, 1978


Aaron Diehl and Mary Lou Williams’s Zodiac Suite

Zodiac Suite was the first orchestral program Mary Lou Williams composed in her own name, originally produced in 1945, but never performed by a full orchestra in her lifetime; her largest arrangement was also limited to a much smaller 45-instrument grouping. This production, arranged by Jeffrey Sultanof and Rob DuBoff and championed by MSO Artistic Partner Aaron Diehl, in cooperation with the Mary Lou Williams Foundation for a modern full orchestra, represents the debut of the entire 12-movement score as envisioned by Mary Lou Williams. Diehl has thus far performed four of the twelve movements in June 2021 with the New York Philharmonic, however that program was limited to a chamber ensemble. The Zodiac Suite explores varying eras and musical styles, with Williams referencing beloved artists and influences in her life grouped under their respective astrological signs.

Artists to whom scores are dedicated:

Aries - Billie Holiday (jazz singer) and Ben Webster (jazz tenor saxophonist)

Billie Holiday Biography

Billie Holiday performs Strange Fruit








Ben Webster Biography


 Taurus - Duke Ellington (jazz pianist, composer, band leader), Ellis Larkins (jazz pianist), Mary Lou Williams (jazz pianist, composer)

Duke Ellington Biography

Duke Ellington “Take the A Train"








Ellis Larkins: The Patient Pianist


 Gemini – Harold “Shorty” Baker (jazz trumpeter)

Harold “Shorty” Baker Biography


Cancer - Lem Davis (jazz alto saxophonist)

Lem Davis Biography


 Leo - Vic Dickenson (jazz trombonist)

Vic Dickenson Biography


 Virgo - "those poeple who seem to have more intellectual than emotional personalities"

Excerpt from “Virgo”performed by Aaron Diehl and the New York Philharmonic, Tito Muñoz, conducting


 Libra – John Coltrane (jazz saxophonist, band leader and composer), Dizzy Gillespie (jazz trumpeter, composer, band leader), Thelonious Monk (jazz pianist and composer), Charlie Parker (jazz saxophonist, band leader, and composer), Bud Powell (jazz pianist and composer), Art Tatum (jazz pianist),

John Coltrane Biography

Dizzy Gillespie Biography

Dizzy Gillespie: A Night in Tunisia Live 81








Thelonious Monk Biography

Thelonious Monk plays “Don’t Blame Me”








Charlie Parker Biography

Bud Powell Biography

Art Tatum Biography

 Scorpio - Katherine Dunham (dancer, choreographer), Al Lucas (jazz double bassist – Canadian), Ethel Waters (jazz singer and actress)

Katherine Dunham Biography

Katherine Dunham performing Ballet Creole (1952)








Al Lucas Biography

Ethel Waters Biography


 Sagittarius - Eddie Heywood (Jazz pianist)

Eddie Heywood Biography


 Capricorn - Frankie Newton (jazz trumpeter), Pearl Primus (dancer)

Frankie Newton Biography

Pearl Primus Biography


 Aquarius  - Eartha Kitt (jazz singer, actress), Josh White (jazz singer, guitarist, songwriter)

Eartha Kitt Biography

Eartha Kitt sings “If You Go Away”








Josh White Biography


 Pisces - Al Hall (jazz bassist), Barney Josephson (owner of Café Society – and integrated jazz club)

Al Hall Obituary

Barney Josephson Biography

Additional Information:

How Mary Lou Williams Shaped the Sound of the Big-Band Era (NPR, September 10, 2019)

Mary Lou Williams Jazz History #24

Mary Lou Williams Zodiac Suite (full album) – original trio

The Little Piano Girl (The Story of Mary Lou Williams)

The Legacy of Mary Lou Williams

milwaukee public library resources

Freegal Playlist

Jazz musician Johnny Padilla curated a Zodiac Suite inspired Playlist. Click here to listen.

The playlist is available to anyone with an MPL library card through the Freegal streaming service.

JAZZED: A Booklist 

Discover more about jazz and the brilliant composer, Mary Lou Williams, through this resource list.