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Mary Lou Williams: Jazz Healing

Teri Harllee King By

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"Jazz has healing in it, and a lot of love."—Mary Lou Williams

The prospect of writing a column on Mary Lou Williams is just a little bit daunting—reflecting on her considerable body of work and enormous talent, but to write about women jazz artists and not cover her would be as close to a jazz sin as I can think of. So, here goes...

As I was reviewing Williams' prolific career, I logged on to see what else might be online about her and stumbled onto a discussion of why there are so few women in jazz. The individual who began this debate had posited that it was due to the fact that women are inherently less creative than men. While it would be reassuring to some to think of Mary Lou as an exception to this man-made rule, she is in fact in very good, and numerous, company, past and present. Still, something about Williams seems to shine, at times, just a little bit brighter.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of Williams's career is the fact that she is the only major jazz artist whose playing spanned every era in the history of jazz: Spirituals, Ragtime, Blues, Small Jazzbands of the 1920's, Kansas City Swing, Boogie-Woogie, Bop/Modern, Avante-Garde. She was also one of the first women in jazz who really crossed gender lines. Williams achieved a status in jazz rare to women: unfaltering respect from her male colleagues as a musical equal. In Kansas City, Count Basie said, "Anytime she was in the neighborhood I used to find myself another little territory, because Mary Lou was tearin' everybody up." In Joan Burke's documentary on Mary Lou, saxophonist Buddy Tate agreed: "She was outplaying all those men. She didn't think so but they thought so."

William's mother, a single parent who worked as a domestic and played spirituals and ragtime on piano and organ, recognized Mary''s considerable talent when she was just a small child. She would hold three-year-old Mary Lou in her lap while she practiced on an old-fashioned pump organ, until one day, Mary Lou's hands beat hers to the keyboards, where she picked out a melody. Startled at the complexity of it, she dropped Mary Lou and ran to get the neighbors to come listen. Her mother said Mary Lou never left the piano after that day. Mary's mother refused to hire a teacher for fear the child would lose the ability to improvise, but instead invited professional musicians to their home. Mary learned by watching, listening and following their advice.

Williams quickly became known in her community as "the Little Piano Girl." Earl Hines' musicians would pick her up when she was in grade school and she would go out and jam with them. Soon she was in demand at the homes of the wealthy as well as at the after-hours gambling joints her stepfather used to sneak her into by hiding her under his oversize topcoat.

A consummate professional by the age of twelve, she toured in a vaudeville review called Hits and Bits, and on the Keith-Orpheum Circuit with Seymore and Jeanette. At thirteen she was playing with Duke Ellington's Washingtonians in the pit of the Lincoln Theater. In the late 1920's, after marrying saxophonist John Williams at the age of sixteen, Mary Lou formed her own small band in Memphis, Tennessee, which included Jimmie Lunceford. Afterward, a long association with Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy, for which she wrote orchestral compositions including "Walkin' and Swingin,'" "Froggy Bottom," "Steppin' Pretty," and "Cloudy." Williams toured widely with Kirk until 1941, when she moved to New York. During the Swing Era she wrote and arranged for all the popular Big Bands: Benny Goodman ("Roll Em" and "Camel Hop"), Jimmie Lunceford ("What's Your Story Morning Glory"), Duke Ellington ("Trumpet No End"), Glen Gray and the Casa Lomas, Bob Crosby, Cab Calloway, the Dorseys, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines.

In New York, her spacious Harlem apartment became a salon for many prominent jazz musicians of the 1940's—a space that fostered the creation of Bop and Modern jazz. Musicians such as Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Sarah Vaughn, Tadd Dameron, Art Blakey, Kenny Dorham, Charlie Parker, Hank Jones, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie gathered at her apartment regularly to play and listen to this new music. Williams made the transition from Swing to Bop/Modern jazz smoothly during this time, developing into a modern pianist of exceptional scope. This period was rich and productive for Mary Lou, both as a performer and as a composer: long-standing gigs at Cafe Society, her own radio show on WNEW, the composition of "Zodiac Suite" and performance of this suite by the New York Philharmonic, and various trio recordings. Williams became widely known as a leader of small groups and trios performing in clubs throughout the U.S. and in Europe during this time.


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