Palaver Strings. Photo by Christina Wnek

The 11 members of Palaver Strings will tackle the 12 movements of “Zodiac Suite” in a tribute to its composer, Mary Lou Williams, Thursday at the State Theatre.

The Portland-based, musician-led string ensemble will perform an arrangement of the suite by Manhattan-based pianist Chris Patishall, whose trio will join in on the performance.

Williams, who was born in 1910 and died in 1981, left behind an astounding legacy that includes working with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman and influencing the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

Mary Lou Williams. [Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, New York, N.Y. ca. 1946] William P. Gottlieb (1917-2006), photographer. Public Domain.

Williams started playing piano when she was about 3 years old and her talent was evident even then.

When she was 6 and living in Pittsburgh, Williams, who is Black, had to endure the violence of white neighbors throwing bricks at the home where she lived with several siblings. Williams came to realize that these same neighbors were fans of her playing, so in order to stop the attacks, she performed for them in their homes.

Paying tribute to Williams fits with Palaver Strings’ anti-racism mission, to “(examine) classical music’s legacy of exclusion and white supremacy, and the ways in which this legacy shapes our playing, decision-making, and ways of being together,” according to its website.

“I think if it weren’t for reasons of race and gender and what we think of as genre borders, we would consider her one of the great American composers period,” said Lysander Jaffe, a violist and co-artistic director for Palaver Strings. “Her work is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves.”


Jaffe noted that other groups, including the New York Philharmonic, have played the suite, which Williams wrote in 1944. Each piece corresponds to the zodiac signs of her friends and peers, from the breezy and playful “Virgo” to the more somber and serious “Libra.”

“I’d been thinking, I love this piece, and it’s such an interesting meeting place between chamber music and jazz,” said Jaffe, whose brother is the bassist in the guest trio.

Palaver Strings will work with the trio for a week of in-depth, in-person rehearsals. The ensemble is hoping for a good turnout because of how large the State Theatre is.

Palaver Strings: Zodiac
8 p.m. Thursday. State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland, $20, $5 students.

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