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Mary Lou Williams: Into the Zone of Music

Mary Lou Williams: Into the Zone of Music

Courtesy William Gottlieb Archive


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In Kansas City I came up with chords that they are only starting to use now.
—Mary Lou Williams
Few musicians have embraced the entire history of jazz like Mary Lou Williams, and at the same time shaped its development compositionally and instrumentally. She brought jazz into contact with classical music and played spiritual jazz before it became hip, but she was also a treasured teacher and mentor.

Mary Lou Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910, as Mary Elfrieda Scruggs. She grew up with an absent mother who drank, and the father was not in the picture, so little Mary grew up much too soon. Williams' turbulent story is told in Linda Dahl's highly recommended biography, Morning Glory (1999), and is the stuff legends are made of. Like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, she went through much suffering, but Williams' story is not tragic, but borne of a luminous love for music which took on a religious glow later in her life.

Already as a child she experienced visions and in the same way she had a special understanding of music. She has once told how she heard a musician and could predict the next note that would come.

The ability to take in the music was not just passive. When she was about three years old, she sat on her mother's lap and heard her play a tune on a small parlor organ. Subsequently, she impulsively emulated the melody so convincingly that her mother lost her in astonishment. She could listen and, not least, transfer her own listening to playing and creating music. This ability became the most important prerequisite for her early musical education, which took place in Pittsburgh. A Catholic choir in particular made an impression. A seed was sown and later blossomed in the form of her own religious music, in which she also included choirs. However, there was not much piety in the environment where she grew up and she escaped from violence and racism through music.

Music became both her escape and livelihood. Nicknamed The Little Piano Girl of East Liberty, she earned money as a pianist for silent films. In addition, she played at parties, but this kind of work wasn't what she dreamt of, and she longed to get away from Pittsburgh.

At just eleven years old, she had already been on her first tour accompanied by a guardian when she performed with the vaudeville show Hits and Bits. The first real opportunity to get away presented itself when she met her future husband, John Overton Williams, and in 1925 joined his group, The Syncopators. It was the start of a tough but fruitful life of touring and at the center of this early phase of her career was a very special group.

Clouds of Joy in Kansas City

In 1929 John Williams played with a group that orchestra leader Andy Kirk had taken over from Terrence Holder. The band became known as Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy. At an audition in Kansas City, arranged by record producer Jack Kapp, acute problems arose with the group's pianist at the time, Marion Jackson. John Williams suggested that Mary Lou could step in and despite reservations, Kirk ended up saying yes. He didn't regret it. Williams astonished Jack Kapp and secured an attractive record deal for the group and she was a vital aspect of the group's rise into stardom.

The 108 compositions she recorded with Andy Kirk and his orchestra became part of the jazz canon and can be highlighted as a definitive example of the swinging Kansas City style. In Kirk's band, Williams grew not only as an instrumentalist, but especially as a composer and arranger. She learned to arrange by watching Kirk and her learning curve was frighteningly fast. Soon the orchestra benefited from her skills as an arranger and she also contributed to their repertoire with compositions such as "Mary's Idea," "Walkin' and Swingin,'" "Lotta Sax Appeal" and "Twinklin.'" Already at this time she had an experimental approach to her work. As she is quoted for saying in the liner notes to the record A Keyboard History (1955):

"In Kansas City I came up with chords that they are only starting to use now."

Alongside her work for Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, Williams also began to be in demand as an arranger for other musicians and her employers included names such as Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman.

Her abilities as an arranger, soloist and composer eventually also made it possible to leave Kirk, who did not appreciate her enough. The lack of financial recognition was unfortunately a recurring problem throughout her career.

In 1942, she left both John Williams and Kirk's orchestra in favor of her new husband, trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker. Baker later came to play in Duke Ellington's orchestra in New York and Williams got work for Ellington as an arranger. Neither the relationship with Baker nor the permanent job with Ellington lasted long, but she still delivered around 47 arrangements for Ellington's orchestra in the period from the '40s to the '60s. He also expressed great respect for her. Famously, he said about her:

"Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains and maintains a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul."

In the Sign of the Stars

Ellington himself came to play a decisive role for Williams as the inspiration for her first masterpiece: The Zodicac Suite. With his suite Black, Brown and Beige, he had shown that it was possible to unite jazz with the formal ambitions of classical music, and now Williams also pushed herself compositionally.

In addition to her regular engagement at The Café Society, she had the radio show Mary Lou Williams's Piano Workshop and for this she composed the first pieces. The rest of the total of twelve pieces that make up the suite were created via improvisation. The inspiration came from astrology with zodiac signs, which also functioned as small musical portraits, for instance is Aries dedicated Ben Webster and Billie Holiday, both born in that particular sign.

With its blend of jazz and a classically structured work, The Zodiac Suite represented something new. The radio audience also welcomed the music and in 1945 it was recorded and released by Asch Records. It highlights Williams solo and in tandem with bassist Al Lucas and drummer Jack Parker.

However, the work only really unfolded when Milt Orient helped arrange it for chamber and symphony orchestra. The extended work could be heard in Town Hall on December 31, 1945, and June 1946, it could be heard in Carnegie Hall.

Today, the work also lives on. In 2006 it was re-recorded by pianist Geri Allen on the record Zodiac Suite: Revisited and in 2021 the New York Philharmonic recorded the music. The two approaches capture the range of the interpretative possibilities of the work from the nuanced and diverse minimalism that Williams herself cultivated in the original recording with Lucas and Parker to the orchestral expression that Orient helped to realize.

It is characteristic of Mary Lou Williams that The Zodiac Suite is dedicated to musicians. Throughout her life she was an active supporter of musicians, both known and unknown. In a biography of Thelonious Monk, Straight, No Chaser: The Life And Genius Of Thelonious Monk (Schirmer Books, 1997), Leslie Gourse has described the special environment that surrounded her apartment at 63 Hamilton Terrace. Here, personalities like Erroll Garner, Phineas Newborn and Art Tatum came to play and talk, while bright talents like Bud Powell, Elmo Hope and Monk were taken under William's wing. She could also be harsh, pointing out that they lacked something in their touch and then took it upon herself to improve it.

When Monk was in Paris in 1954 where she herself lived at the time, Williams again came to play an important role. After a concert in the Salle Pleyel, she introduced Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who became an important acquaintance for Monk. Musically speaking, Bob Blumenthal has noted the influence of Williams' composition "Walkin' and Swingin'" on Monk's "Rhythm-a-ning."

Crisis and Religious Redemption

She also became involved in festival work in her hometown where she played a crucial role in the development of the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, the first edition of which came in 1964. However, she still focused on helping her fellow human beings. In 1957 she started The Bel Canto Foundation whose purpose was to help musicians in need. The work was financed through her own thrift store and the income from the record label she started, Mary Records.

The religious and musical aspects of her life were united in various ways. From the '60s, the priest Peter O'Brien became her manager and faithful supporter and with weighty works such as Black Christ of the Andes (1964) and Mary Lou's Mass (1975) she became a pioneer within spiritual jazz. She connected dots between gospel music, older and modern jazz and classical music in an idiom that can be described as both traditional and modernist. Her ability to constantly challenge herself and reconcile traditionalism and modernism was also expressed in a duo concerto with the avant-garde pianist, Cecil Taylor, released on record in 1977 under the title Embraced (Pablo Live). Opinions are divided about the quality of this experiment, but it shows that Williams kept challenging herself to the end and never got stuck in his historical understanding of jazz. Or as she herself said following the concert with Taylor: "Now I can really say that I have played it all."

The Zone and History of Jazz

Another way Williams challenged herself was by becoming a lecturer at Duke University where she started in 1977. It made perfect sense that Williams, whose awareness of jazz history forms the core of her aesthetic, came to teach and deliver the message of jazz to a new generation.

Zoning the History of Jazz became the title of the book she was working on. The concept of zoning covers a philosophy that is about creating space for the music. On the record of the same name, released on Mary Records in 1974, she is completely in the musical zone, conveying a funky modernism that is as tight and resilient in its rhythmic expression as it is open and probing. It is a different realization of the history of jazz than a record like A Keyboard History (Jazztone, 1955) , but then again not. With Williams, who mastered the entire jazz repertoire from its roots in gospel and spirituals to post-bop, understanding the history of jazz is the prerequisite for emotional liberation. The intellectual and the emotional are connected. One must know the body of jazz to express its soul. The history of jazz is present in her choice of repertoire where she often played jazz classics. As she pointed out at a concert that can be heard in excerpts in Joanne Burke's documentary: Mary Lou Williams: Music on My Mind (1990):

"There have been four important periods in this wonderful music: spirituals, ragtime, Kansas City swing, and the bop era. All the music is healing and spiritual."

These four periods form the cornerstones of Williams' style, which can otherwise be difficult to define and distinguish. On a record like Zoning, which is dominated by her own compositions, jazz history is present as archaeological layers, the colors of which subtly help to shape the musical painting. She could unite the styles of jazz in an expression that ranges from the funky blues "Play It Momma" to the modernist dissonance in a composition like "Zoning Fungus II" where she can be heard in a duet with the pianist Zita Carno.

The duet or dialogue is the key to understanding Williams' music. She is constantly in dialogue with the music, the musicians, and the tradition, which is of course is handed down orally. She did not believe that jazz could be learned by playing from a book, and in Burke's documentary there are some wonderful passages where she sings the music with her students.

Recording for SteepleChase

In 1975, producer Nils Winther had the opportunity to experience Williams live and this resulted in a recording for SteepleChase:

"I was in New York and everyone was talking about how great it was that this "old lady" played with Buster Williams and Mickey Roker. I heard them at a restaurant on Bleeker Street and then contacted Father Peter who took care of all her business, both earthly and heavenly."

Winther still remembers the meeting with Williams:

"She was an unusually kind and serious person. She was very religious. I naturally knew about her long career, but also had recordings with young musicians who "took lessons" with her, e.g. Hilton Ruiz, John Stubblefield, etc."

Her dedicated approach to music was clearly expressed when the album had to be recorded:

"She was very serious. She recorded many takes before she was satisfied: "Pale Blue"—9 takes, "Temptation"—7 takes, "Baby Man"—4 takes, "Gloria"—6 takes, "Surrey With The Fringe On Top"—4 takes, "Free Spirits & Ode To Saint Cecilia"—3 takes, "Dat Dere," "All Blues" and "Blues For Timme"—2 takes. The musicians were the ones she worked with and the choice of tunes was largely hers, with a few suggestions from me. Mary Lou was happy with the artistic freedom she got on the recording. I left the choice of repertoire and choice of musicians up to her, as I think it should always be, by the way."

The finished record, Free Spirits, has since been highlighted as one of her best recordings by the Penguin Guide to Jazz. Winther is not much for proclaiming classics, but nevertheless states:

"I think it's a very fine release, and I'm very happy that I had the opportunity to record this huge jazz musician."

The legacy of Mary Lou Williams

Williams continued to teach and record after Free Spirits, including the aforementioned record with Cecil Taylor, but age and illness gradually weakened her and on May 28, 1981, it was over. Mary Lou Williams died aged 71, leaving behind an extensive and varied discography, and not least a rich musical legacy. In Denmark, her music has been taken up by the composer and pianist Jacob Anderskov. He gets the closing words with his testimonial for a musician for whom conveying the joyful message of jazz music and supporting other musicians was paramount:

"My first encounter with Mary Lou William's music was on the iconic, but also for her atypical, record with her and Cecil Taylor together. I later read that she was frustrated with this collaboration, and the record is perhaps not the best place to start for several reasons. On the other hand, it is a unique documentation of an extremely interesting frontal clash between two great musicians, each from a different aesthetic, and each from a different generation."

"Mary Lou William's close connection to many of bebop's great celebrities is often mentioned, perhaps without it ever becomes clear how much Mary Lou Williams influenced the young beboppers. I'm certainly not an expert in this discussion, but on the other hand, it's hard not to be curious about what she showed to whom, and when, when you hear her music. Lately, I have been particularly interested in the album Zodiac Suite. Compositions such as "Virgo," "Pisces," "Scorpio," "Capricorn" and "Taurus" sound extremely precisely articulated, and if they were subjected to a modern remastering, one could well be mistaken and think that it was much newer music than is the case. Who has the original tapes, I hereby ask. On "Virgo" in particular, it is also as if a very direct dialogue is heard with Thelonious Monk's music, where we will probably never find out which way the influence flowed."

"I myself have played her "In the Land of Oo-bla-dee" with great pleasure, of which it is recommended to hear her own arrangement, recorded by Dizzy Gillespie's band featuring Joe Carroll on vocals. It is a rather humorous track in the original recording, both entertaining and almost meta-bop, understood in the way that the tonal language of bebop, combined with the silly text, actually breaks down the usual perspectives of bebop. But apart from that, the track is purely instrumentally wonderful to play, and to play over. And of course, listen to the ever-fresh version she's done of "It aint necessarily so"—has that track ever been played more hip?"



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