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 retains—and maintains—a 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!