Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams
Berkeley: University of California Press
Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981): was she an important minor and perhaps neglected figure in jazz history, or was she a powerful and original stylist somehow left out of the jazz historical cannon? Should she, in fact, be ranked with the great jazz pianists like Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell-all of whom admired her-and if so why hasn't she been?
These questions are fully answered in Linda Dahl's revealing, honest and sympathetic biography, but the answers she provides turn out to be complicated and closely tied to the particular ordeals Williams endured and to the choices she made to survive them. One could certainly attribute her misfortunes largely to race and gender. Dahl, however, spends little time blaming and no time soapboxing. Rather she tells a straightforward story of "the little piano girl of East Liberty" (Pittsburgh), who sought refuge in music from the abuses of her childhood, and became a truly great player, even a minor star in the 40s. Her musical adventurousness put her harmonically ahead of her time, making her arranging skills highly sought after. That same quest for new sounds fueled her embrace of bebop, a rarity among the musicians of her generation (she was a year younger than Art Tatum, two years older than Teddy Wilson, and seven years older than Monk).
Yet her musical life, despite her increasing reputation, was plagued with so many setbacks and frustrations that by the 50s, when she should have been consolidating her gains and moving into more prestigious labels and more visible touring and festival appearances, she quit the profession altogether in favor of religion and benevolent activities.
To begin with, she had to fight through the gender prejudices of the Andy Kirk band, where despite her superiority as a pianist, she had to wait until the band's regular pianist proved too unreliable before she got the steady post that put her in the spotlight as "the lady who swings with the band." But building on this success confronted her with a new set of obstacles: severe underpayment and underrecognition for the 47 compositions and arrangements she wrote for Duke Ellington, whom she never trusted; skimming off her pay by tough-guy manager Joe Glaser; the less than smashing success of her pioneering symphonic Zodiac Suite concerts of 1945-6, whose tapes were then stolen by a flamboyant but unscrupulous Danish record producer; continual stresses at her club jobs, such as the one at Cafe Society, where her violence-prone bassist broke her nose, or where she was clearly the best, though underused, element in an otherwise weak revue (staring Ethel Waters), which quickly folded; recording on the cheap for Moe Asch's Disc label. At this time she was fighting to be taken seriously as a musician and to transcend the nickname "boogie-woogie queen." On top of this, her Pittsburgh family was a continual energy drain.
Once Williams converted to Catholicism in 1952, religion became an obsession. She spent hours each day in prayer, at one point praying by name for over 1000 people. Her colleagues began to rue her attempts to convert them. Her spiritual advisors, Father Anthony Woods, S. J. and the Franciscan Brother Mario (Grady Hancock), had to counsel her to ease up. From then until the mid-60s she devoted most of her creative efforts to sacred works, including St. Martin de Porres (the Black Christ of the Andes), a six-and-a-half minute choral work, and three masses, which Dahl claims marked the achievement of her musical maturity. But these were not popular successes.
Even once Williams began playing publicly again in the 60s, she turned down regular club gigs and tours, which would have strengthened her reputation and paid some of her bills. It was at this time that she hooked up with Father Peter F. O'Brien, a young priest with a strong penchant for the arts, who eventually became her manager and later her executor.
Williams recorded only occasionally during the 50s and 60s. Today those cuts sound competent, contemporary but not particularly remarkable-until one remembers that Williams was virtually the only member of her generation who was keeping up with the absolute latest stylistic trends. Teddy Wilson, in contrast, remained stylistically in the 30s all his life. But Williams' 1953 "Round Midnight" is harmonically right on target for the time; she infuses her 1963 "My Blue Heaven" with hard-boppish blues and a touch of gospel (and block chords); while her original "A Fungus Amungus" of the same date catapults the listener into concrete music a la Cecil Taylor.