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Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band

By Published: May 4, 2006

Mary returned to Pittsburgh, uncertain whether she'd keep performing. Local drummer Art Blakey, then 18, convinced her to put together a band, including second husband Harold "Shorty" Baker. Six months later she and Baker joined Duke Ellington's orchestra, Mary as staff arranger. Her most prominent arrangement, "Trumpets No End", based on "Blue Skies", was recorded in 1946. After six months she left Duke and Baker, moving to New York City. Thus began a rich, productive period as a performer and composer. She played long-standing gigs at Cafe Society, had her own radio show on WNEW, composed "Zodiac Suite", which was performed by a summer orchestra of the New York Philharmonic, and recorded with a trio. Her tiny apartment in Harlem became a headquarters where the pioneers of modern jazz, among them Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Tadd Dameron, gathered to share ideas, compose, listen to records and get advice from their new mentor, Mary Lou. Unlike most of her peers, Mary loved what the "boppers" were doing. Among her contributions to the modern jazz movement were the tune and arrangement "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee", which Dizzy's big band recorded, and a couple of tunes she convinced Benny Goodman to record with his brief bop-oriented small group.

A nine-day job in England in 1952 stretched into two years performing throughout Western Europe. She was an immense hit in Paris. One night, however, she walked off the stage in a state of emotional collapse, spending the following months in the countryside resting and praying. Upon returning to the States her performance activities were limited. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. In support of this effort she ran two thrift stores. She and Dizzy's wife Lorraine converted together to Catholicism. Two priests and Dizzy convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band. Throughout the 1960's her composing focused on sacred music - hymns and masses. One of the masses, "Music for Peace", was choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as "Mary Lou's Mass". In this period Mary put much effort into working with youth choirs to perform her works, including mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York before a gathering of over three thousand.

Father Peter O'Brien became her close friend and personal manager in the 1960's. Together they found new venues for jazz performance at a time when no more than two clubs in Manhattan had jazz full-time. In addition to club work Mary played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and made television appearances.

Throughout the 1970's her career flourished, including numerous albums. In 1977 she accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence, co-teaching the History of Jazz with Fr. O'Brien. With a light teaching schedule, she also did many concert and festival appearances, conducted clinics with youth and performed at the White House concert hosted by President Carter. While she was hospitalized with cancer in 1981, she received Duke's Trinity Award for service to the university. She died in May of that year.

Beyond her numerous recordings, compositions (approx. 350) and arrangements, her legacy lives on in many ways. There's Joanne Burke's 1989 film "Music on My Mind". She is featured in the 1994 documentary "A Great Day in Harlem". The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in May. Linda Dahl, author of the book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen, has recently completed a biography of Mary Lou to be published this year. The Mary Lou Williams Foundation, to which she bequeathed most of her assets, continues pairing young musicians ages six to twelve with professionals. Her archives are preserved at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark.

Mary Lou proudly proclaimed "No one can put a style on me. I've learned from many people. I change all the time. I experiment to keep up with what is going on, to hear what everybody else is doing. I even keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next" Or as Duke Ellington expressed it, "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary".

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