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Mary Lou Williams - Pianist, Composer
Arranger And Innovator Extraordinaire

by dave ratcliffe

Includes sections compiled from liner notes of the albums: My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me, The History of Jazz, and The Asch Recordings, 1944-47.

Mary Elfrieda Winn was born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910. To keep order in the house, her mother used to hold Mary Lou on her lap while she practiced an old-fashioned pump organ. One day, Mary Lou's hands beat her mother's to the keys and she picked out a melody. When her mother discovered this (Mary Lou believes she was 22 or 23 at the time), she had professional men come to the house to play for Mary Lou. Thus, very early, Mary Lou was exposed to Ragtime, Boogie-woogie and the Blues.

Later (Mary Lou puts her age between 4 to 6 years old), the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Mary Lou was exposed to all kinds of music. She studied for a time under the then-prominent Sturzio, a classical pianist. An uncle, Joe Epster, paid Mary Lou 50 cents a week to play Irish songs for him. (An all-time favorite was "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling".) Grandfather Andrew Riser would pay her 50 cents a week to play from The Classics (Il Trovatore) which she learned from watching and pressing down the keys on a player piano. But her stepfather, Fletcher Burley, who hummed the Boogie and Blues for her was her main inspiration along with brother-in-law Hugh Floyd. They encouraged her in her music. Fletcher would hide young Mary Lou underneath a big overcoat that he would wear and sneak her into all kinds of places (including gambling joints) where his buddies gathered. Mary Lou describes it:

He'd take off his hat, put it on the table, put a dollar into it, and say: "Stop! Everybody -- my little girl is gonna play for you." He'd pass the hat around. Often, when I'd leave, I'd have twenty-five or thirty dollars. When we got back outside, he'd say: "Give me back my dollar," and then we'd go home. My mother would ask, "Where were you?", and he would reply, "Oh, we went over to Rochelle's". Years later, when she found out where Fletcher had been taking me, she almost went into shock.

Known throughout Pittsburgh as "the little piano girl," Mary Lou was often heard at private parties including those of the Mellons and the Olivers, well before she was ten years old. Brother-in-law Hugh Floyd would take Mary Lou to the theater to hear and see musicians at work. One day while at the theater Mary Lou heard a great woman pianist and musician, Lovie Austin:

I remember her in the pit of the theater, legs crossed, cigarette in her mouth, playing with her left hand, conducting at least four other male musicians with her head, and writing music with her right hand for the next act that would appear on the stage. As a little girl, I said to myself, "I'll do this one day." Later on when I was traveling and doing one-nighters with Andy Kirk, I'd play all night with my left hand and write new arrangements with my right -- sometimes I'd work crossword puzzles on the stand. The memory of Lovie Austin is so vivid to me. Seeing her, challenged me into doing difficult things.

At fifteen she took to the road with Seymour & Jeanette, a vaudeville act popular in the 1920's, which required that she play purely pop style. When in Kansas City, she quit the vaude circus and joined the dance band of John Williams, a skilled saxophonist-clarinetist from Memphis. It was during the mid-twenties that she made her first recordings with John Williams' Jazz Syncopators. They were soon married, but, lacking expert management, Williams abandoned his own group and, along with Mary Lou, joined Andy Kirk's orchestra in 1928. Initially, Kirk already had a pianist so Mary Lou forsook the keyboard to write compositions and arrangements and tour with the group as a sort of child bride of Williams. That situation changed when Andy gave her the piano chair with his Clouds of Joy and began a series of record sessions for Brunswick. Tunes like "Cloudy", "Messa Stomp", "Loose Ankles", "Casey Jones Special", and "Froggy Bottom" proved classics of the late twenties.

During the thirties -- the Swing Era -- Mary Lou's strong playing -- especially in the left hand -- coupled with her many original compositions and unusual arrangements did much to spread the style known as Kansas City Swing: the strong blues-based and joyful music most widely known through Count Basie. This was the time when Jam sessions tended to increase the musicians solo inventiveness. During this same period, Mary Lou wrote and arranged for all the Big Bands of the era including those of Louis Armstrong, the Dorseys, Benny Goodman ("Roll Em" and "Camel Hop"), Jimmie Lunceford ("What's Your Story Morning Glory") -- during the twenties Mary Lou had a small band in Memphis, Tennessee - she was the leader of this combo when she was all of seventeen -- one of the sidemen was Jimmie Lunceford -- and Glen Gray and the Casa Lomas among others.

For Kirk she wrote "Little Joe From Chicago" (the first Big Band boogie-woogie thus arranged), "Cloudy","Walkin' and Swingin'" (much loved by musicians for the unusual voicing in the arrangement and bought and played by all the Bands of the period), "Steppin' Pretty," "Scratchin' In The Gravel," "Bearcat Shuffle," and many more. All together Mary Lou wrote more than three hundred and fifty compositions.

In spite of the hard times of the 1930's, Kirk managed to hold the band together working out of Kansas City on gigs that might only pay $50 a night for the whole band. Finally in 1936 a Kirk Decca platter (during the thirties she recorded extensively with Kirk for Decca) of "Until The Real Thing Comes Along" (with Pha Terrell, Kirk's pastry vocalist and front man) established the Clouds of Joy atop the charts.

Annotator Dave Dexter, Jr. remembers well the Kirk band of the thirties with the unique little girl at the piano. She wore a long skirt, invariably, and her hair was in bangs. No other orchestra sported a female pianist. Her style was light, bouncy, somewhat in the Earl Hines fashion but always, always, hard swinging. Musicians throughout the Middlewest -- and Southwest -- adored Mary Lou.

But time changed all this. The end of the thirties brought an end to the Kirk-Williams affiliation and a divorce to the Williamses. In 1941 Mary Lou traveled with and wrote for the Duke Ellington Band for about six months producing some fifteen to twenty arrangements. The most durable of these was a brilliant version of "Blue Skies" (melody completely hidden) called "Trumpet No End", which was a showcase for the fabulous Ellington trumpet section which by that time included Harold Baker. The arrangement was recorded in 1946 by the Ellington Band. Mary Lou also traveled for a while as a leader of a small group that included Baker and an 18-year-old drummer also from Pittsburgh named Art Blakey. Regretfully this group was never recorded.

In the early forties Miss Williams began a long and happy engagement at Cafe Society Downtown in New York City. She had moved to New York permanently in 1941. She played off and on (mostly on) for a good five years beginning in 1943. The years from 1941 through 1948 were a period of intense creativity in Jazz. And the place of creation was New York City. Mary Lou arrived on the scene at the right time. Varied influences were brought to bear on the music of Mary Lou Williams during those years. One was her already mentioned more or less constant gig at Cafe Society. If Cafe Society encouraged a look back over the shoulder toward what was best in the music of Kansas City and the Swing Era in general, that was no loss. By the forties Swing was mature and many of the most brilliant players from the era found employment at Cafe Society: Teddy Wilson, Eddie Heywood, Billie Holiday, and Josh White who, in another category, was one of Cafe Society's biggest stars.

The second influence was a group of musicians together with three locations. The musicians and two of the locations are widely known -- even famous -- the third place only moderately known. Many of the musicians might be referred to as "the original boppers." Among them figured Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Dorham, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, and most especially vis-a-vis Mary Lou Williams, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk who were in her company almost daily. All these musicians were intensely and creatively busy in bringing to birth a new form of Jazz that would later be labelled Bop or Modern. The two widely known locations were Minton's Playhouse in upper Manhattan (the house that built Bop) and New York's 52nd Street. The third not so widely publicized meeting place was Mary Lou Williams' apartment.

Before, in between, and after work at Cafe Society Downtown, Mary Lou Williams was to be found at Minton's. Here Dizzy, Monk and Bird were at work late at night playing and creating new sounds in music. Mary Lou Williams was an early appreciator of their work and an encourager of the new music -- so much so that she was at times `put down' by musicians of the previous era. She was also often found in the clubs along 52nd Street listening -- sitting in -- after her regular performances at Cafe Society. In the middle late forties Mary Lou left Cafe Society in favor of the clubs along `the Street' where the new music was beginning to have a hearing and where her playing began to advance rapidly along modern lines. Of course she herself had always been `modern.' In Kansas City during the thirties after regular Jam Sessions musicians would often gather around the piano and ask Mary Lou to play "Zombie" for them. The `outre' chords Mary Lou employed on such occasions were new and `out' harmonies -- based off `sounds' in Mary Lou's words -- chords she says were `modern' even `avant-garde' as these terms are used concerning Jazz today. They were merely, even at that time, the product of an experimental and advancing musical intelligence at work.

In the meantime her apartment had become almost immediately upon her arrival in New York in 1941 a haven for many of the younger musicians. All the experimenters, the inchoate boppers, were there from time to time -- many most of the time (Dizzy Gillespie and Tadd Dameron especially) and two all the time: Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They brought their compositions to her to listen to and the musical sessions which extended through the night and into the next day on Hamilton Terrace were long and constant and might involve Eroll Garner or Mel Torme or Sarah Vaughan or Miles Davis or Oscar Pettiford, etc.

In 1945 her recording activities produced The Zodiac Suite. At this time Mary Lou had her own weekly radio show on WNEW in NYC called "The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop". She composed and played an interpretation of each of the astrological signs -- one weekly -- for twelve weeks. "I read a book about astrology", Mary Lou recalled,"and though I didn't know much about it, I decided to do the suite as based on musicians I knew born under the various signs. I had no time to write, or go in the studio and record, so after those first three (signs), I'd just sit there and play, and the music was created as we were playing. You might call that real jazz composing." Then she scored the suite for an 18 piece orchestra (with Ben Webster included) and that version was presented in concert at Town Hall. Barney Josephson, the owner of Cafe Society, produced it. The concert was recorded but the tapes were stolen and are lost. In the following year three of the sections of the suite were rewritten and scored by Mary Lou for the New York Philharmonic. These three sections were played by that orchestra with Miss Williams as guest artist in a concert at Carnegie Hall and the occasion marked the first meeting of Jazz and the Symphony.

Mary Lou toured much in clubs and on the concert stage throughout the United States and Europe. In 1955, after returning from Europe where she had spent two years, Mary Lou Williams became a Roman Catholic, and devoted her time to religious activities and charitable work. She thus remained in semi-retirement until 1962 when she broke new ground composing and recording her "Hymn in Honor of Saint Martin de Porres." She was the first Jazz Composer to write for sacred purposes. Since that time she composed three complete Masses, one of which,"Mary Lou's Mass", was performed by her at an actual liturgy in Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in 1975. (She again performed this Mass at Saint Patrick's on April 22, 1979 which i had the pleasure and privilege to hear and see.)

Up to the end of her life on May 28, 1981, Mary Lou Williams was thoroughly involved in her music, and in the fight to expose Jazz and see that it survives and developes further. As well as teaching as Artist in Residence at Duke University, she frequently found herself involved in Concerts, Workshops, Residencies, Lecture-Demonstrations, Discussions, Radio and TV. A three or five day residency on a Campus found her on stage in concert with her trio, in a music or black history class, in lecture-demonstrations in large halls detailing, on the piano and in question-and-answer periods, the roots and history of Black American Music and Jazz, with the college archivist taping oral history for the future.

Mary Lou also appeared in clubs, on the concert stage, in the recording studio, on radio and TV, in churches large and small in performances of her Mass, in grade and high schools playing and lecturing at assemblies -- in short: she continued to be directly in the forefront of music which is exactly where she has always belonged.

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