Mary Lou Williams Post Article (All Mary Lou)

Birdman9Birdman9 5,417 Posts
edited May 2005 in Strut Central
washingtonpost.comWilliams Jazz Fest Swings Back to Mary LouBy Matt SchudelWashington Post Staff WriterSunday, May 15, 2005; N01This is the 10th year the Kennedy Center has presented the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. More than 100 women have performed in that time, but there remains one woman whose music has been conspicuously absent from the festival: Mary Lou Williams.Her name has long hovered on the misty periphery of jazz awareness, but this year we can finally see why she is more than a figurehead for the festival that honors her career. At long last, the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, which runs Wednesday through Saturday, will fully earn its name.On Friday, vibraphonist and bandleader Cecilia Smith will present a full evening of Williams's compositions entitled the Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project. The music, ranging from classic swing tunes to ambitious sacred works, will be performed by small groups, a big band and 50 massed voices of the magnificent Morgan State University Choir.Geri Allen, who portrayed Williams in the 1996 Robert Altman film "Kansas City," will perform Williams's 12-part "Zodiac Suite" on Saturday (on a triple bill with the Dixieland ensemble Jazzberry Jam and singer Rene Marie). Allen is believed to be the first pianist to perform the suite since Williams wrote and played it in 1945."For the first time," says Peter O'Brien, a Jesuit priest who managed Williams's career for 11 years and knew her well in the final years of her life, "the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival truly represents Mary Lou Williams."The idea of honoring Williams, and women in jazz generally, came from Billy Taylor, the Kennedy Center artistic adviser and Johnny Appleseed of jazz. It takes place each year in May, the month of both Williams's birth 95 years ago and her death in 1981.During her 71 years, she was a remarkable, one-of-a-kind artist. She may have been the finest prodigy jazz has ever produced -- a full-fledged professional at 12, who played with Duke Ellington's band when she was in her early teens; a pianist whose abilities were said to rival those of Art Tatum and Bud Powell; a composer of irresistible melodies and forward-thinking harmonics; the hostess of a jazz salon that spawned some of the most imaginative music of its age. She continued to develop new ideas and modes of expression until the end of her life.She wasn't just "good for a woman" -- she was superior to almost everyone.Musicians still revere Williams, but to the wider public, and even to the shrinking quarter that listens to jazz, she's Mary Who? The music alone will have to show why a small but devoted coterie believes Mary Lou -- to anyone in jazz she's just "Mary Lou" -- deserves a place alongside the most honored names in jazz."Genius," says Smith, who has studied Williams's music for the past four years. "Is there another word for her? I don't think so."On her expedition of musical archaeology, Smith has made a number of discoveries. One of the works she will present Friday is Williams's 1962 oratorio for orchestra and choir, "St. Martin de Porres" (also called "Black Christ of the Andes," for the first black saint of the Roman Catholic Church from the Americas)."It's so magnificent," says Smith, "it makes you sit and reflect for a minute."Williams's 350 compositions have been carefully catalogued and now reside at the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. That's where Smith went four years ago to begin her journey into the world of Mary Lou.She found an unrecorded composition, an "Ode to St. Cecilia," the patron saint of music. And as she looked at Williams's handwritten scores, she felt drawn to them for another reason, as if they had been beckoning her all along.Williams called her publishing company Cecilia Music."That's a little spooky," says Cecilia Smith.For the last 17 years of Williams's life, her closest associate was O'Brien, the Jesuit priest who had read about her in Time magazine and introduced himself while she was performing at a New York jazz club in 1964."We were immediate, deep friends," he says.Catholicism, to which she had converted in 1957, was an important part of Williams's life and inspired her to write "St. Martin de Porres" and three Masses. With O'Brien's guidance, she reentered the public eye in the 1970s, after years as a near recluse.O'Brien teaches English at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, N.J., and, as executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, keeps a close watch on how her music and reputation are preserved. Even today, 24 years after Williams's death, he describes their odd-couple association as "the most significant relationship of my life."She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta on May 8, 1910. As early as the age of 2, sitting on her mother's lap, she began to pick out melodies on an old pump organ.Around age 5, she moved to Pittsburgh, where a couple of stepfathers came and went, bestowing new last names -- Winn and Burley -- on her. Professional musicians sometimes came to the house, but Mary Lou's mother refused to let her daughter take formal lessons, fearing they'd dampen her originality. By the time she was 6, Mary Lou was playing for neighbors, and at 10 she was billed in Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl."She began to work in vaudeville troupes and traveling shows when she was 12, and by the time she was 13 or 14, she was in New York and sat in with Ellington's band for a week. Everything in her life happened fast: She married a musician named John Williams at 16, moved to Memphis, began to lead a band at 17 and by the time she was 19 was working with one of the best groups in Kansas City, Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy.Within a year, she was the band's pianist, chief composer and arranger -- and even sewed uniforms and drove one of the band's cars to out-of-town jobs. She could play piano with her left hand while writing out arrangements of the next tune with her right hand."There was a true artist in her," says O'Brien. "You can hear it in her first solo when she was 19. She was already a master."It's amazing how many paths in jazz intersect at Mary Lou Williams. She knew Jelly Roll Morton, the fountainhead from which the first jazz flowed in New Orleans. After hearing her play, Fats Waller lifted her up and tossed her in the air. She met Thelonious Monk in the 1930s, when he passed through Kansas City with a gospel show. By the late '30s, she was writing arrangements for Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Cab Calloway and others.In Kirk's band, she met Ben Webster, the velvet-toned tenor saxophonist. She knew Count Basie, Lester Young and everyone else in music-mad Kansas City and figured in one of the greatest jazz stories ever told.Sometime in 1933 or 1934, Coleman Hawkins, who was considered the premier tenor saxophonist of the day, came to town. After midnight, a jam session began at a club called the Cherry Blossom. After listening to Young, Webster, Herschel Evans and other K.C. sax kings, Hawkins went to his hotel, came back with his own saxophone and entered the battle. The night grew later and the music grew hotter as the tenor men put forth one chorus after another, each more exhilarating, more daring, more tension-packed than the last."Around 4 a.m.," Williams told an interviewer 20 years later, "I awoke to hear someone pecking on my screen. Opened the window on Ben Webster. He was saying, 'Get up, pussycat, we're jammin'!' "Williams took over on piano, as the tenor players kept blowing. Hawkins was sweating so hard, he took off his shirt, but the low-key Young, with his endless store of soaring inventions, grew stronger and seemed, to the ears of most, to be t
riumphant. As night turned to day, the battle royal came to an end only when Hawkins had to pack up his horn and drive to his next job. He was so late, the legend goes, that he burned out the engine of a new Cadillac trying to make the show.After writing such classic tunes as "Cloudy," "Walkin' and Swingin'," "Mary's Idea" and the soulful "What's Your Story, Morning Glory" (the obvious source of the '50s torch song "Black Coffee"), Williams left Kirk's band in 1942 and moved to New York. Long since divorced by then, she formed a band with her new husband, Ellington trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker, and then quickly became a star in her own right.She headlined at the Cafe Society nightclub (performing opposite Billie Holiday), had her own radio show and was dubbed the "Queen of Jazz."In 1944, she campaigned across the country for the reelection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the following year composed her "Zodiac Suite," which was performed by the New York Pops orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 1946.During this time, Williams's home in Harlem became a gathering place for musicians. She'd make a pot of food and would leave the door open if she wasn't home. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Monk and Miles Davis -- the vanguard of the bebop movement -- all came to her house and swapped ideas.In the early 1950s, Williams lived in Europe and was performing in Paris when she decided she needed a break from the business and walked off the stage. She stayed away from music for three years, using the time to study Catholicism and join the church. She began to perform again on a more modest scale and, in 1958, was one of only three women included in the "Great Day in Harlem" photograph of jazz musicians by Art Kane. (The two others were Marian McPartland and Maxine Sullivan. In 1978, Williams was the first guest on McPartland's "Piano Jazz" program on National Public Radio.)In the 1960s, Williams absorbed the new modal styles of John Coltrane, dabbled in the free jazz of Cecil Taylor in the 1970s and borrowed from Stravinsky. She was, in Duke Ellington's words, "perpetually contemporary."Like Ellington himself, but few others, Williams kept growing throughout her life, yet retained an essential musical sensibility that was all her own."Real jazz has love," she once said, "and it has the spirit of God coming out of the suffering of black people.""Anything you are," she added, with characteristic pithy simplicity, "shows up in your music."After teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Williams moved to Durham, N.C., in 1977 as artist-in-residence at Duke University. She gave master classes, taught jazz history -- O'Brien was her co-lecturer -- and continued to compose and perform. She was comfortable on campus, even though she never got through the ninth grade or had children of her own. Because of the demand, her courses were capped at 90 students."The students adored her," says O'Brien. "She got them to feel the music within their bodies."As the first great female instrumentalist, the first great female composer and the first great female arranger in jazz, Williams always understood the quality of her work and was never naive about her talent. If she crossed many lonely frontiers in her life, she knew that others would one day follow.?? 2005 The Washington Post Company

  Comments


  • noznoz 3,625 Posts
    fridays already sold out

  • LaserWolfLaserWolf Portland Oregon 11,518 Posts
    After teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Williams moved to Durham, N.C., in 1977 as artist-in-residence at Duke University.

    Nice story, thank you.

    You would expect such a succesful artists to be rich. But there is little money in jazz, and even less in adventurees compasitions. So like many others she taught to pay the rent.

  • Birdman9Birdman9 5,417 Posts
    fridays already sold out

    Yeah, I'm outta town anyway or I would be more bummed.

  • KineticKinetic 3,738 Posts
    This is why sometimes... just sometimes... I wish I lived in America.

    I think that would be amazing to go and see.

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