Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What’s Your Story, Morning Glory – The Music of Mary Lou Williams

I’d like to introduce you to someone this morning—I say “introduce,” because I imagine many of you won’t be familiar with this person, despite the fact that she was one of the top jazz composers & pianists from the 1930s thru the 1970s.  She played blues & swing & bebop & more—including her own wonderful jazz liturgical music after a conversion to Catholicism later in life.  She was an arranger for the Duke Ellington band & the Benny Goodman band; she also hung out with the Minton’s crowd: Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke et al.; she composed an extended song cycle called Zodiac Suite that is among the most ambitious of jazz works—she also composed a jazz mass.  Yet, her name isn’t well known—her name is Mary Lou Williams.  This is what Duke Ellington said of her:

Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead throughout her career. . . . her music retainsand maintainsa standard of quality that is timeless.  She is like soul on soul.

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia in 1910, but she greup in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  She was a child prodigy, gifted with a remarkable ear, & began public performance at age seven, & went on to play with Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians while in her teens.  In 1927, she married saxophone player John Williams, & she eventually moved with Williams to Kansas City, where they both joined Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, Williams serving as both pianist & arranger.

Following a divorce from in her husband, Williams moved back east in the early 1940s, first putting together a band in Pittsburgh (with Art Blakely on drums!), then eventually moving to New York.  During this time she was composing the magnificent Zodiac Suite & also playing a large role in the development of be-bop.  She said:

During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later.
Mary Lou Williams became a convert to Catholicism in the early 1950s, & much of her later music dealt with her new found faith.  She said, “I am praying through my fingers when I play.  I get that good ‘soul sound,’ and I try to touch people's spirits.”  Her Mass for Peace was choreographed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, & performed as “Mary Lou's Mass.”  She performed through the 1970s, with her final recording being made at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival—in fact, this is available on dvd (as Norman Granz Jazz In Montreux Presents Mary Lou Williams '78), & I recommend it highly; it’s a good introduction to her work.  Mary Lou Williams passed away in 1981.

If you’re interested in her work (which I hope!) you have quite a selection from which to choose.  My own recommendations (in addition to the Montreux dvd) would include My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me (Pablo); Zoning (Folkways); Zodiac Suite (Folkways); & Black Christ of the Andes (Folkways).  There’s also an excellent biography by Linda Dahl titled Morning Glory (University of California Press); I’d also mention that the classic Nat Shapiro/Nat Hentoff compilation Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya (Dover) contains a number of Ms Williams’ reminiscences & anecdotes—this book is a must read for jazz fans.

Hope you enjoy Mary Lou Williams’ music!


  1. Oh yeah, Mary Lou Williams is definitely on my list of top ten hits! She toured with Dizzy when he was doing his Jazz Ambassador to the World thing for the State Dept. back in the '50s and '60s, too. That woman could play! Thanks for the memories.

  2. A really great post. She was tops. Thanks so much for the clips. A special talent.

  3. Hi Roy & Jacqueline

    Roy: I wished I'd seen her live, but she was winding down by the time I was of an age to do so. Glad you enjoyed this.

    Jacqueline: Glad you enjoyed it, & the clips. I know 3 vidclips is a lot, but I felt that if folks were interested, 3 was a minimum to give some sense of the talent & scope.

  4. Mary Lou Williams was truly a towering figure and, unfortunately, much overlooked by the general public. Jazz musicians definitely held her in her rightful place, though. This past May 10th marked the centennial of her birth and I did a post on Mary Lou, which you may find interesting, especially some of the links to NPR material on her and by her. For example, the very first ever Marian McPartland "Piano Jazz" radio show (1978) featured her.

    I will not include a link to my post because I am a bit shy about overtly promoting my blog in comments on other blogs (but do so "covertly" instead ;)), but if you are interested you will be able to find it (May 10th -- another covert clue).

    Keeping alive the name and work of such treasured artists and souls is such an important task, and one you have done very well with Mary Lou Williams. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for the introduction, John. I love that she said she prayed through her fingers. Beautiful.

  6. Hi Lorenzo & Willow

    Lorenzo: I'll definitely check that out. I don't mind links in comments, by the way. Sorry to not get over there today--very busy couple of days (that's why there was no post today).

    Willow: Glad you liked it. I did think the "prayer" comment was very interesting.


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