Mary Lou Williams

“Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.” – Duke Ellington, Music is my Mistress [1]

It would be a massive oversight to spend a month studying the work of jazzwomen from history on a daily basis and neglect to spend some significant time on the great Mary Lou Williams. She is one of the few female musicians from history to have been respected as a “musician’s musician,” by her peers and those who have spoken and written about her over the years. “Her contributions to this music make her a pioneer irrespective of gender” says historian, Robin Kelley. [2] She was one of the few players to work in nearly every iteration of jazz through her lifetime and to evolve with (or some say even ahead of) the music while maintaining her strong roots as an artist. In fact, later in life she commissioned artist, David Stone Martin to create an image that illustrates of the history of jazz from her unique perspective as a participant in every part of it up to that point. [3]

Over the course of her career, she arranged and composed over 350 musical works. She had perfect pitch. She practiced, composed, and arranged with a feverish intensity bordering on obsession. Jazz scholar, Robert O’Mealy says she “felt possessed by music” and had to release it, lest she go mad. [2] She was truly a singular human being and her vast contribution to the jazz idiom is undeniable. Incidentally, she is also one of the three women in the famous “Great Day in Harlem” photo (along with Marian McPartland and Maxine Sullivan, if you remember. Mary Lou is talking to Marian in the photo bookended on her left by Thelonious Monk.)

Art Kane’s 1958 photo, A Great Day in Harlem

Williams was a child prodigy, picking up melodies from her mother who would play piano and pump organ with Mary Lou in her lap. From age 6-14 she was playing all over Pittsburgh and until she was known as the “little piano girl of East Liberty.” Eventually, she left home where she dealt with her mother and grandmother’s alcoholism to perform on a Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) circuit doing vaudeville shows. Conditions were poor and it was a terrible lifestyle, especially for black performers. But, Mary Lou met her husband, saxophonist John Williams, in this show circuit and when he left to go work with Andy Kirk’s band, she went along. John Williams tried to convince Kirk to let Mary Lou play with the band, but it wasn’t until their piano player didn’t show and they were desperate that she had the opportunity to play with the group.

Record executive, Jack Kapp, heard the band with Mary Lou and invited them to record in Chicago. However, when they went, they left her behind, saying it was more trouble than it was worth to bring a woman along. When they arrived, Kapp asked, “Where’s Mary Lou?” to which Kirk replied, “Oh, we didn’t need her.” Kapp said, “Oh, yes you do need her.” So send for her, they did.

Horrifically, Williams was raped on the train by the conductor on the way to Chicago. When she got to the studio, she channeled that hellish experience into her music. Williams thought she was “auditioning” for the band so she sat at the piano and improvised the tune which she would call “Night Life.” [2] That performance became her first recording along with the flip side “Drag ’em.” She was never paid an advance or royalties for these sides. [4] In the film, The Lady Who Swings the Band, Robin Kelley said, “Music for Mary Lou is really a documentation of the triumph over the trauma.”

She worked with the Kirk band until 1942, also writing and arranging for Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Tommy Dorsey. Her arrangements were forward-thinking and highly influential. In fact, listen to the following and see if you can catch the seed of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm’a’ning:”

When the young bop musicians were coming up, she acted as a mentor to such luminaries as Dizzy Gilespie, Charlie Parker, Tad Dameron, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, and others. Her apartment in New York was a sort of hub where these musicians would gather to write music and pick each other’s brains. Mary Lou would leave her apartment open for them to come and work if they needed inspiration whether she was at home or not. She would share ideas and tips with them, and they would also collaborate. She wrote the bebop hit “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” for Dizzy Gillespie. [3]

Inspired by Duke Ellington’s larger scale work, “Black, Brown, and Beige,” Mary Lou arranged her “Zodiac Suite” for a mixed classical and jazz orchestra and performed it at Carnegie Hall in 1946. Unfortunately, the reviews of the concert were unfavorable at the time and this crushed Mary Lou. She then spent some time in Europe working and touring, but she found the experience to be draining and lacking in inspiration. At a concert in Paris in 1954, she’d had enough and simply walked off stage in the middle of a performance. She left it all and went on hiatus for several years.

After much soul searching, she found solace in the Catholic church (because it was the only one open at all hours of the day), and converted to Catholicism. It was actually her priest, along with Dizzy Gillespie who convinced her to return to music. She went on to write a great deal of sacred music, including a jazz mass, which “brought jazz to the catholic church.” [2] She also began to focus more on serving her community.

“‘There’s a period when you have to stop and take care of yourself,’ she said. ‘That’s the only way you can help others.’ John S. Wilson writes, “to continue helping others, she founded the Bel Canto Foundation, an organization to rehabilitate needy musicians. She supported it through a thrift shop, where she sold donated clothing and furniture, and through her record company, Mary Records.” [5]

Later in life, she was appointed as an artist in residence at Duke University. According to Father Peter O’Brien, who managed her musical career from 1970 until her death in 1981, “It was a deeply fulfilling period for her. She loved the students, and they loved her. She received the Trinity Award, given directly by the vote of the students. Williams battled bladder cancer for the last two years of her life. She never complained, and continued her intense schedule through the fall of 1980. In the final three months of her life, she was bedridden, but continued to compose. Her last work remains incomplete—a composition of 55 winds, piano trio, and chamber orchestra called The History of Jazz, a history she largely lived and helped create.” [3]

Fr. O’Brien also says, “Williams made an effort to explore the nature of the music she was creating by writing about it. She distributed a single mimeographed page under the title of ‘Jazz for the Soul’ everywhere she played. Here are some of the things she had to say:”

‘From suffering came the Negro spirituals, songs of joy, and songs of sorrow. The main origin of American Jazz is the spiritual. Because of the deeply religious background of the American Negro, he was able to mix this strong influence with rhythms that reached deep enough into the inner self to give expression to outcries of sincere joy, which became known as Jazz.

The creative process of improvisation cannot be easily explained. The moment a soloist’s hands touch the instrument, ideas start to flow from the mind, through the heart, and out the fingertips. Or, at least, that is the way it should be. Therefore, if the mind stops, there are no ideas, just mechanical patterns. If the heart doesn’t fulfill its role, there will be very little feeling, or none… at all.

The spiritual feeling, the deep conversation, and the mental telepathy going on between bass, drums, and a number of soloists, are the permanent characteristics of good jazz. The conversation can be of any type, exciting, soulful, or even humorous debating.

And at the bottom of the page, entirely in capital letters, this:

YOUR ATTENTIVE PARTICIPATION, THRU LISTENING WITH YOUR EARS AND YOUR HEART, WILL ALLOW YOU TO ENJOY FULLY THIS EXCHANGE OF IDEAS, TO SENSE THESE VARIOUS MOODS, AND TO REAP THE FULL THERAPEUTIC REWARDS THAT GOOD MUSIC ALWAYS BRINGS TO A TIRED, DISTURBED SOUL AND ALL “WHO DIG THE SOUNDS.” [3]

So here’s to continued attentive participation and carrying on the tradition paved by all of these magical beings we call jazz musicians. Thank you for reading.

(Re)sources

[1] Ellington, Duke, 1899-1974. Music Is My Mistress. Garden City: Doubleday, 1973.

[2] Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band. Directed by Carol Bash. The Mary Lou Williams Project. April 1, 2015. (https://www.kanopy.com/product/mary-lou-williams-lady-who-swings-band).

[3] Father Peter O’Brien. “Mary Lou Williams: Jazz for the Soul.” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine. Fall 2010. (https://folkways.si.edu/magazine-fall-2010-mary-lou-williams-jazz-soul/ragtime/music/article/smithsonian).

[4] Gary Giddins. “Modern Mary.” JazzTimes. September 1, 2004. (https://jazztimes.com/columns/cadenza/modern-mary/).

[5] John S. Wilson. “Mary Lou Williams, A Jazz Great, Dies.” The New York Times. May 30, 1981. (https://www.nytimes.com/1981/05/30/obituaries/mary-lou-williams-a-jazz-great-dies.html).

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