Imagine a pianist playing concerts with Benny Goodman and Cecil Taylor in successive years (1977-78). That pianist was Mary Lou Williams. In a career which spanned over fifty years Mary was always on the cutting edge.
She was born Mary Scruggs in 1910 Atlanta. Her mother was a single parent who worked as a domestic and played spirituals and ragtime on piano and organ. At age three Mary shocked her by reaching up from her mother's lap to pick out a tune on the keyboard. Rather than hiring a teacher (for fear the child would lose the ability to improvise) Mary's mother invited professional musicians to their home. By watching, listening and heeding their advice, Mary learned well, especially the importance of a strong left hand. By age six, dubbed "The Little Piano Girl of East Liberty," she was playing for money around her new home of Pittsburgh, Pa. Her early years included listening to piano rolls of James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith, records of Jelly Roll Morton and seeing Earl Hines play at youth dances. At age twelve she went on the road during school vacations with a vaudeville show. Three years later she quit high school to join the very successful vaudeville team Seymour and Jeanette. Here she met saxophonist John Williams, whom she married at sixteen. When John got the call to join Terrence Holder's band in Oklahoma, Mary took charge of his band, the Synco-Jazzers, in Memphis (Jimmie Lunceford was a member).
By the time Mary joined John out West, Holder was out and Andy Kirk had become the leader of the Twelve Clouds of Joy. Because the band already had a pianist, Mary just filled in. By day, however, she was feeding tunes and arranging ideas to Kirk (at this point she had little knowledge of theory or notation). She soon tired of this process and began writing arrangments herself, influenced by the style of Don Redman. Contrary to Kirk's advice she wrote sixth chords and unlike most arrangers of the time combined instruments from different sections. Ultimately she would become the band's full-time pianist, primary soloist and arranger. During the '30's she also wrote arrangements for Goodman (Roll 'Em, Camel Hop), Lunceford (What's Your Story, Morning Glory?), the Dorseys, Casa Loma, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and others.
Kirk's band was a scuffling territory band in its early days. But the band was based in a place Mary called "a heavenly city," Kansas City. With fifty clubs and a political machine tied to bootlegging and gambling interests, the city was nearly Depression-proof for jazz musicians. The best musicians from the Southwest and Midwest flocked there and many nationally-known musicians stopped there to jam while on tour (this is depicted in Robert Altman's movie "Kansas City," with pianist Geri Allen playing the part of Mary Lou). Mary participated in the jams often, including the famous night when Coleman Hawkins tried to cut the local tenor men, including Ben Webster, Lester Young and Herschel Evans.
The Kirk band became nationally prominent after a 1936 Decca recording. Mary stayed another six years, at which point she was tired of touring and pay inequities. David Baker has said "Particularly given those years, 1929-42, it was almost without precedence to have a female in the band who wasn't a singer and secondarily for that female to virtually all the musical decisions in her hands. Mary Lou Williams had the enviable position of being the person who shaped virtually the entire history of a band." Of her piano prowess 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." Saxophonist Buddy Tate seconded this in Joanne Burke's documentary on Mary Lou when he said "She was outplaying all those men. She didn't think so but they thought so."
Jazz and the blues--because together this musical brother and sister speak from our nation's days of the current cultural affairs and the authenticity and truth of a place where the rhythms held the pulse and the drums the heartbeat, representing every step closer the meat on the bone
Jazz and the blues--because together this musical brother and sister speak from our nation's days of the current cultural affairs and the authenticity and truth of a place where the rhythms held the pulse and the drums the heartbeat, representing every step closer the meat on the bone. Feet in the dirt, or barefoot on a stage with sequins--it's soul beats in my chest.
I was first exposed to jazz while others listened to surf music in the '50s and '60s, it was Monk, Miles, Satchmo and Ella, Rosemary Clooney and Julie London followed. Margaret Whiting, Les McCann, Willie Bobo, Andy Simpkins, Snooky Young, Bill Basie and Helen Humes. The first time I heard Topsy, Take 2, I about passed out at the age of ten.
I've hung with Les McCann who more than 30 years after our first meeting became my duet partner on my CD, Don't Go To Strangers. Karen Hernandez from the start, Jack Le Compte on drums, Lou Shoch on bass, Steve Rawlins as my arranger and pianist, Grant Geissman - guitar genius, Nolan Shaheed, Richard Simon, and more. The big boys. My Red Hot Papas. The best show I ever attended was...
I met Helen Humes first back in 1981 and helped turn one Playboy Jazz Festival night into her tribute, bring the Basie Band to stage, her joy boys. Before she took the stage for the last time to sing, If I could Be With You One Hour Tonight thousands of copies of the newspaper I wrote for carried her story. It was kismet, her being held by Joe Williams backstage. Soon in my life were the great Linda Hopkins who told me I sang the song she wrote better than her, which floored me of course, the energizing Barbara Morrison and the stellar Marilyn Maye who guided me professionally.
My advice to new listeners... let your backbone slip and feel your body stripping back the barriers that prevent us from being one with the music.
Remember none of us are strangers, we just haven't met yet.