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Memories of Mary Lou

By Published: May 4, 2006
17 years of deep friendship followed—and of hard work. I became Mary Lou's personal manager and helped her to re-emerge fully during the last decade of her life. This involved the composition of three full masses on her part and of many other pieces as well. We traveled together. She toured, did long residencies in New York, recorded, worried about musicians and young people and their well-being, cared for her family traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh, PA—where many of them lived—went to church, prayed, played cards, cooked, talked to her friends on the telephone and composed music.

She also had the habit of carefully listening to people. She listened attentively to me. Above all, she cared. There was nothing frivolous or selfish about her—not in her music—not in how she carried herself or handled life. Her prayer life spilled over into active charity and deeds of kindness. Some might say I was very lucky to have found her and to have been such a big part of her life during those 17 years we were together. I would say that I was "blessed".

When she died on May 28th, 1981, I thought everything was over. In time I realized, of course, that that was not true. There were, first of all, the recordings. Almost all of these have now been re-issued on CD - four alone on Smithsonian Folkways which keeps its inventory in perennial availability. She was also a composer and this will insure a measure of "immortality". A large collection of music manuscripts and other memorabilia are preserved in The Mary Lou Williams Collection at The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. A good amount of Mary Lou's music has been performed in the last 15 to 18 years. And now we even have new recording projects.

I was again blessed to begin to know the great pianist Geri Allen beginning in 1982, just a year after Mary Lou's death. Our close friendship has developed into musical collaboration and together, with myself as producer and Ms. Allen as musical director, we have formed The Mary Lou Williams Collective. Our first recording project is called Zodiac Suite: Revisited where Mary Lou's first (1945) extended composition is preserved and expanded by Geri on piano with Buster Williams on bass and Billy Hart on drums.

The Dutch Jazz Orchestra has just released an album of 13 of Mary Lou's big band compositions—10 of them world premieres and The United States Army Field Band—Jazz Ambassadors plans a release within a year and a half of a CD devoted to Mary Lou and her music. That this will not be on sale in stores but offered free of charge to any teacher, school or library making a request would please Mary Lou very much. She was desperate that her beloved music "jazz" survive. I am doing what I can to have Mary Lou's own music heard and survive into the future.

May 2006 marks the 96th anniversary of Williams' birth (May 8th) and 25th anniversary of her death (May 25th).

Photo Credit
William P. Gottlieb

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