"The all-time greatest woman jazz musician." That typically was the kind of language used in describing Mary Lou Williams.
Mary Lou was a fabulous pianist, as well as a noted arranger, and composer. But she also had another role of distinction: she was a sort of mother spirit for innovative musicians. Her spacious Harlem apartment was a salon where, especially in the 1940's, many of the best jazz people hung out.
I was a friend of hers and particularly remember when, in 1947, she suggested I show up for a "gathering." The turnout was small, but choice. Among the group were three disparate geniuses who were, or became, members of Down Beat's Hall of Fame: Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Teagarden, and May Lou, herself! To top it off, there were two of the most prominent be-boppers: pianist-arranger Tadd Dameron and pianist Hank Jones.
It was a serious session. More talk and listening to records than music making. Even Dizzy was subdued, smoking a pipe and looking like an elder statesman. Perhaps the lightest touch came when Teagarden started fiddling with some of Mary Lou's miniature, toy fiddles.
Finding Jack Teagarden in that group was surprising. Here, among the boppers, was the laid-back Texan trombonist and singer who was a celebrated touring partner of Louis Armstrong and a frequent member of old-time combos. But everyone loved the guy, for his personality and musicianship.
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