Up to now this series has only explored songs from the “hot jazz” era of the 1920s. While I love music from that era, I didn’t want the series to turn into a sort of “moldy figs” appreciation of traditional jazz to the exclusion of later developments in the music—both because I love later jazz as well, & also because there are some prime examples of blues meeting jazz from all points in jazz history, & even from some composers who have been considered quite radical.
Today’s song comes from one of the most talented composers & pianists in the history of jazz, tho sadly she is still all too often overlooked. That is the great Mary Lou Williams, of whom Duke Ellington wrote:
Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.
Mary Lou Williams began her performing career in the 1920s when she was still in her early teens, & at age 15 she was performing with Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians. She made the claim—a true claim at that—that in her long career she played in “every era” of jazz, & in fact she composed & performed in the hot jazz era, thru the big band time & was an important tho frequently neglected figure in the development of be-bop. Williams continued to be a significant force in the jazz world up to her death in 1981.
In addition to the fact that Mary Lou Williams was a masterful pianist, she was also a composer & arranger of note. Her Zodiac Suite from the mid 1940s is a great extended composition, & she also composed a number of noteworthy songs, including today’s selection, “Roll ‘Em,” which she wrote in 1937 in response to Benny Goodman asking her to come up with a theme song for his band. “Roll ‘Em” is a hard driving boogie, & the version we have today showcases Williams as a performer backed by the Benny Carter Orchestra. In its basic structure, “Roll ‘Em” is a 12-bar blues, but it’s transfigured by Williams’ inventiveness & her powerful flow of musical ideas.
Hope you enjoy it!