Established in 1983, The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was named to honor renowned pianist, composer, teacher, and humanitarian Mary Lou Williams (b. Atlanta, GA- 8 May 1910; d. Durham, NC 28 May 1981). With hundreds of recordings and compositions in all genres of jazz, she was an innovator and an artist that was truly beyond category.
Her musical and spiritual contributions to the art form are remembered by artists such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell as both singular and profound. She was among the first jazz artists to perform at Carnegie Hall and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, and she has the distinction of becoming one of the first women in the United States to create a recording label (Mary’s Records). Continuing in the tradition of firsts, Williams became Duke University’s first Artist in Residence and one of the first recipients of the Trinity Award for Service to the university. While at Duke, she taught a course on the history of jazz and wrote for and conducted the jazz orchestra. She was so revered by students, faculty, and staff that when the university fulfilled its promise to build a black cultural center in 1983, her name was chosen to don the center.