Two weeks ago I did a piece for the Times about Myrlie Evers-Williams and how her dream of playing Carnegie Hall was about to come true. That performance, with Pink Martini, came true Friday night. Given the events of the past week, I thought an uplifting story might be in order. This is an expanded version of that piece based on further interviews.
“Forever. For as long as I can remember.”
That’s Myrlie Evers-Williams, 79, talking about how long she has dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall.
On December 14 and 15, with Portland-based Pink Martini, Ms. Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, will see that dream come true.
“It was the dream of my grandmother and then it became my dream,” Ms. Evers-Williams said by phone. “Baby, I want you to play at Carnegie Hall when you grow up, she would say to me.”
Ms. Evers-Williams said that her grandmother, who raised her, had once dreamed of being a concert pianist.
“She passed along to me all of her hopes and dreams of being a concert pianist,” Ms. Evers-Williams said.
Twice a week, she paid 25 cents to get her piano lessons.
“And on days when I did not have lessons she would sit beside me for one hour, sometimes two, until I finished practicing. She explained what Carnegie Hall was, why it was so important, but my full understanding of that did not come until much later in life.”
Ms. Evers-Williams said that under grandmother’s eye, her lessons were focused on classical music, something that eventually started to take away from the pleasure of playing.
“I started to not particularly enjoy music anymore because she only wanted me to play the classics,” Ms. Evers-Williams said.
But once she entered high school, she made a discovery.
“I discovered jazz, which my grandmother would never let me play or sing. I would have to sneak away with high school band members to even listen to that music, which I really fell in love with.”
After high school, she enrolled at Alcorn University planning to study music but something happened that changed the direction of her life.
“It was the first hour of my first day on campus when the football team came over to check out the new crop of freshman girls,” she remembered. “ Medgar Evers was on the football team and things were never the same.”
After two years, she had married Medgar and left school. Her grandmother’s dream of playing piano at Carnegie Hall, which had evolved into her own dream of being at Carnegie Hall in a red dress singing torch songs while lying in the curve of a baby grand, was put on hold.
“It was a necessity,” she said. “Two days before Medgar was assassinated, I had told him I couldn’t survive without him and he told me that I am strong and I would move on and I have tried to keep moving ever since.”
She said that while she is honored to be his widow, she is so much more and has lived a life full of challenges that she has met head on.
“But I never fully let go of the dream of me in a red dress.”
Enter Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini whom Ms. Evers-Williams met when she was living in Bend, Oregon.
“Talk one day turned to dreams and I told him about the red dress and he said that when they play Carnegie Hall again, I would have to join them. I said, no. no. no. He said, yes, yes, yes.
“Thomas Lauderdale is a very persistent man.”
Ms. Evers-Williams said it took Mr. Lauderdale months to convince her.
“I eventually said yes. So here I am delighted, frightened about the upcoming performance, trying to find something that will bring joy to the audience and hopefully not leave them in tears of embarrassment.”
Ms. Evers-Williams said that whatever her performance entails, it will likely not include much time at the piano.
“Time has not been kind to my fingers, which are now more than a little arthritic.”
The shows will include some discussion of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute, which has long existed in name but Ms. Evers-Williams would like to see have a permanent home. While in New York, she will likely be attending some meetings Mr. Lauderdale is trying to set up to promote the institute.
“I have always been proud of being married to Medgar and helping promote him and his work over the years,” she said.
She said that one thing that the performances will definitely be will be a tribute to her grandmother.
“I want to make this woman who believed in me proud. I keep thinking of the words she said to me constantly: Baby. Ask God to make you a blessing.
“And that is what I hope will happen.”