Music

Carmen Lundy back in her Miami hometown to sing Mary Lou Williams with New World Symphony

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
February 19, 2024 at 1:58 PM

Jazz vocalist-composer Carmen Lundy, pictured in her Woodland Hills, Calif., library beneath an original print of “Bird Now,” a film about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, will sing compositions by Mary Lou Williams in the New World Symphony’s “The Soundworld of Mary Lou Williams” on Saturday, Feb. 24 and Sunday, Feb. 25 at the New World Center, Miami Beach. (Photo courtesy of Janet Van Ham)

Carmen Lundy attributes the breath between each note she sings to growing up in Florida. She recalls that someone once told her that the sound of her voice “had the wind in it, the air, the humidity.”

The Miami-born jazz vocalist and composer says it was South Florida that shaped her. Memories flood out of her like a tropical rainfall. A conversation with the singer focuses on the present and the past. First, it’s her upcoming concerts with New World Symphony, the grand finale of its annual “I Dream a World” festival. This year, the focus has been on the “first lady of jazz,” legendary pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams.

Portrait of Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Mary Lou Williams, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, and Milt Orent, at Williams’ apartment, New York, N.Y., circa August 1947 (Photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb via Library of Congress)

“So, here I am, returning to South Beach to perform the music of one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, (an artist) who people are still learning about and I’m excited about that,” says Lundy.

Now in its third year, New World’s “I Dream a World” series takes place each February during Black History Month, aiming to introduce its audience to Black music and artists that are not as widely known. This year, it’s Williams, whom New World’s tagline references as “a jazz woman in a jazzman’s world.” Williams was born in Atlanta in 1910 and died in Durham, N.C., when she was 71 in 1981.

Lundy holds an esteemed distinction in the realm of Williams’ music. She was chosen by the pianist and composer’s manager and executor of Williams’ foundation to carry out an important assignment.

Jazz vocalist and composer Carmen Lundy got her start in music listening to rehearsals of her mother’s gospel group the Apostolic Singers of Miami. (Photo courtesy of Janet Van Ham) 

“In 1982 or ’83 — by this time I was living in New York City — I got a telephone call from Father Peter O’Brien. He saw this story about me in the “Village Voice” and called me up and asked me if I would be part of a tribute concert to Mary Lou. That was my first time singing one of her compositions. He was her manager for the last 17 years of her life,” says Lundy, adding that O’Brien managed her career for a short time, too.

She says she only saw Williams play live once. “. . . Maybe my first or second year of living in New York City at the Jazzmobile (New York City’s longest-running live jazz concert series).”

But the importance of honoring Williams’ legacy would become even more life-changing for Lundy.

“Upon her passing, (O’Brien) continued the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, which was meant to expose her music to young generations coming up,” recalls Lundy.

He requested that she go to some of Manhattan’s parochial schools – Williams had converted to Catholicism in the 1970s – and teach children Williams’ composition of what’s now known as “Mary Lou’s Mass.”

New World Symphony’s “I Dream a World” festival returns with a series of programs that honor the life and work of the “first lady of jazz,” legendary pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. Photo taken at CBS studio, New York, N.Y., circa April 1947 (Photo courtesy of William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress)

“Mary Lou’s Mass” will close New World Symphony’s “The Soundworld of Mary Lou Williams,” at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 24 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.

In the program, Lundy will perform Williams’ “Ghost of Love” and “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” with the Aaron Diehl Trio. On the same program, Diehl will perform selections from Williams’ “Zodiac Suite,” for which he received a Grammy nomination this year in the category of “Best Classical Compendium” and which has brought new attention to the “Zodiac Suite.” The series of 12 pieces was inspired by the composer’s musical friends and colleagues and their zodiac signs: for example, “Aries” for Billie Holiday and “Taurus” for Duke Ellington.

Carmen Lundy singing at the Checkmate Lounge in South Miami circa 1976-77. (Photo courtesy of Carmen Lundy archives)

Of Williams, Lundy says: “I’ve been representing her music for years now and whenever there’s an opportunity where I’m asked to join, I can’t say ‘no’ really. It’s kind of a responsibility. I may just be exposing you to her music through my little offering vocally. That’s my job, to represent her to the highest level that I can in my small way.”

Now living in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, Lundy is coming back to Miami for the second time in three months. She performed at the grand opening of the University of Miami’s Frost School’s Knight Center for Music Innovation in early November.

“I sang a song written for Miami called ‘Miami,’ ” a jazzy tribute to her hometown composed for the occasion. The UM alumna was  presented with a Centennial Medal from the school awarded to “exceptional alumni.”

Enough of the present. She’s ready to dig right into the scrapbook of her life growing up in Richmond Heights. “I went to preschool, grade school, middle school, high school – Miami Killian class of ’72 – and the University of Miami,” says Lundy, spilling out the references like the fast tempos in a jazz improvisation.

The oldest of seven, she was influenced early in her life by the Apostolic Singers of Miami, her mother Oveida’s gospel group. Now at 69, composer, arranger and singer, dipped her hand in moviemaking during the pandemic. She created a documentary, “Nothing But The Blood: The True Story Of The Apostolic Singers of Miami,” which she directed, filmed and edited about the group’s history. It won the Downtown LA Film Festival’s Best Music Documentary in 2022.

Carmen Lundy performing with her brother Curtis Lundy on bass at Le Jardin circa April 1977. (Photo courtesy of Carmen Lundy archives)

“I was a little girl watching my mother rehearse with this group in the house when I was four or five. And I would pluck out those melodies on the piano because every house we ever lived in had a piano. I thought I was going to be a piano player,” recalls Lundy.

When she was thirteen, she began performing as part of a vocal duo, “Steph and Tret.”

“When we were juniors in high school, Stephanie (Patterson) and I did a record at Criteria Recording Studios (in North Miami), one of the famous recording studios in modern music. Aretha Franklin recorded there and James Brown and a whole bunch of others including Gloria Estefan. And we did two songs and we had our little record and we were just so proud of ourselves.”

She says it was a year later when she “broke out on my own and began my performance career.”

Lundy says she worked her way through getting her bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Miami performing with her band. “My classmates were Pat Metheny, my pianist was Bruce Hornsby.”

When asked for stories of the venues she played, she says: “Venues? You want venues?” And then lists some of the most famous Miami music rooms of the 1970s.

“People who are Miamians will remember names like the Checkmate Lounge, the Traveler’s Lounge by the airport, they’ll remember the Peacock Room at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Village Inn on Commodore Plaza in the heart of Coconut Grove. . . (Wolf Hanau’s) Le Jardin restaurant. Hornsby was in my band then. I played all those venues.”

Carmen Lundy, circa 1973, performing at the Eden Roc Hotel on Miami Beach. (Photo courtesy of Carmen Lundy archives)

She goes on to say: “My story began on Miami Beach. I used to open the small rooms when all the major acts came through at the Eden Roc. I performed music from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. six nights a week while in college. Somewhere in Miami, I was singing.”

In 1978 she headed for New York City and, she says, “never looked back” with a clear idea about what she wanted to get out of New York. “I walked right onto the stage, literally.”

She immediately began performing at Jazzmania, bass clarinetist Mike Morgenstern’s fourth‐floor walkup jazz room at 14 East 23rd St.

In 1985, Lundy released her first solo album on the independent label, Black Hawk. Entitled “Good Morning Kiss,” the album claimed the No. 3 spot on Billboard’s Jazz Chart for 23 weeks. She now has 16 albums and has published over 150 songs. Her compositions have been recorded by artists like Kenny Barron, Ernie Watts, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Regina Carter. In 2005, she launched the Afrasia Productions music label with producer Elisabeth Oei.

“We have been very successful with our own efforts – pursuing this career as a composer as well as a jazz singer with two Grammy nominations.” The last nomination was in 2023 in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category for “Fade To Black,” her 16th record release.

In 1991, she moved to Los Angeles for a television pilot, and has made California her home ever since.

“Thank goodness (the pilot) didn’t get picked up because I don’t know what my life would have been if I hadn’t stayed grounded and rooted in my jazz.”

Lundy’s continuing dedication to Williams as a jazz influence is essential, she says, to getting her music to a wider audience, to her own approach as a woman in the music business, and as a female performer.

“We have to remember that for our culture to represent certain artistic endeavors and having an impact on the world, we have to include the female – you can’t exclude the female. The presence of the female has always had an integral role in shaping cultural expressions over time. (Mary Lou Williams) had an impact on every decade of jazz music until she passed away in the 1980s. That’s phenomenal.”

WHAT: New World Symphony: “The Soundworld of Mary Lou Williams”

WHERE: New World Center, Michael Tilson Thomas Performance Hall, 500 17th St., Miami Beach.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 24 and 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 25 

COST: $40-$140; free Wallcast outdoors, Saturday, Feb. 24 only, on the New World Center’s 7,000-square-foot projection wall in SoundScape Park.

INFORMATION: 305-673-3331 or 800-597-3331, also nws.edu

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

latest posts

Miami Light Project Presents A Futuristic, Modern Latin...

Written By Miguel Sirgado,

"Positive Vibration Nation," a new multimedia musical theater-rock-guaguancó opera, features an ensemble of Miami-based Latinx artists.

Seraphic Fire welcomes guest conductor, unearths Baroqu...

Written By Miguel Sirgado,

Rubén Valenzuela found a common bond with Seraphic Fire's Patrick Quigley. Now the connection has resulted in a Florida premiere.

Eliades Ochoa Goes Beyond Buena Vista At 26th Afro Root...

Written By Fernando Gonzalez,

Eliades Ochoa, who achieved international fame as a charter member and key figure of Buena Vista Social Club, headlines the opening concert of Afro Roots Fest.