Pianist Geri Allen plays the pivotal role in this tribute to Mary Lou Williams, whose music made her a pioneer against sexism and whose career stands as a model for the creative life. The concert’s title comes from Duke Ellington’s description of Williams; when she penned a famous arrangement of “Blue Skies” (retitled “Trumpet No End”) for the Ellington band in 1946, she became one of the few outside composers–and the only woman–to have material accepted by the Maestro. But Williams was used to opening doors: the most significant female instrumentalist of the swing era, she contributed arrangements to Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, and her sparkling solos were immortalized in one of the band’s novelty numbers, “The Lady Who Swings the Band.” In the mid-40s her charts helped energize the wild-eyed bop orchestra led by her pal Dizzy Gillespie, for which she wrote a lighthearted but enduring number called “In the Land of Oo Bla Dee.” Having adapted her piano style from boogie to bop, she remained “perpetually contemporary” (Ellington again); in 1977 she recorded a remarkable duo concert with new-music doyen Cecil Taylor, a few weeks before her 67th birthday. Geri Allen played a character based on Mary Lou Williams in Robert Altman’s film Kansas City, but her appearance on this program makes sense for other reasons as well. Like Williams Allen has worked convincingly in a number of idioms, including the jazz-hip-hop fusion of Steve Coleman, the postfreedom jazz of Ornette Coleman, and the neoclassicism of Wallace Roney. Her uncanny ability to inhabit these different worlds without curtailing either her melodic impact or her airborne swing recalls Williams’s strength of musical personality. Allen will perform Williams compositions (including several never recorded or heard in public) for solo piano, small group, and big band, assisted by most of the homegrown Fletcher Basington Orchestra. The program is sponsored by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, on whose board this writer sits. Sunday, 3 PM, First Chicago Center, One First National Bank Plaza; 312-427-1676. Mary Lou Williams: Music on My Mind, a one-hour documentary, will be shown at 2 PM at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-346-3278. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.