Mary Lou Williams
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Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams (Gottlieb 09231) - Crop.jpg
Mary Lou Williams c. 1946
Background information
Mary Elfrieda Scruggs
Born (1910-05-08)May 8, 1910
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Died May 28, 1981(1981-05-28) (aged 71)
Durham, North Carolina
Genres Jazz, gospel, swing, third stream, bebop
Musician, composer, arranger, bandleader
Instruments Piano
1920-1981
Labels Brunswick, Decca, Columbia, Savoy, Asch, Folkways, Victor, King, Atlantic, Circle, Vogue, Prestige, Chiaroscuro, SteepleChase, Pablo

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 - May 28, 1981) was an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions).[1] Williams wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Early years

The second of eleven children, Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[2] A young musical prodigy, at the age of three, she taught herself to play the piano.[3][4] At the age of six, she supported her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing at parties.[5] She began performing publicly at the age of seven when she became known admiringly in Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl."[6] She became a professional musician in her teens, citing Lovie Austin as her greatest influence.[7]

She married fellow jazz musician, saxophonist John Williams, in November 1926[2] who advocated for her acceptance as a female musician as well as toured with her.

Career

In 1922, at the age of 12, she went on the Orpheum Circuit. During the following year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. One shining salute to her talent came when she was only 15. One morning at three o'clock, she was playing with McKinney's Cotton Pickers at Harlem's Rhythm Club. Louis Armstrong entered the room and paused to listen to her. Williams shyly told what happened: "Louis picked me up and kissed me."[8]

In 1926, Williams married saxophonist John Overton Williams. She met him at a performance in Cleveland where he was leading his group, the Syncopators, and moved with him to Memphis, Tennessee. He assembled a band in Memphis, which included Williams on piano. In 1929, 19-year-old Williams assumed leadership of the Memphis band when her husband accepted an invitation to join Andy Kirk's band in Oklahoma City. Williams eventually joined her husband in Oklahoma City but did not play with the band. The group, Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Williams, when she wasn't working as a musician, was employed transporting bodies for an undertaker. When the Clouds of Joy accepted a longstanding engagement in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams joined her husband and began sitting in with the band, as well as serving as its arranger and composer. She provided Kirk with such songs as "Walkin' and Swingin'", "Twinklin'", "Cloudy'", and "Little Joe from Chicago".

Williams was the arranger and pianist for recordings in Kansas City (1929) Chicago (1930), and New York City (1930). During a trip to Chicago, she recorded "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life" as piano solos. She used the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of Jack Kapp at Brunswick Records.[9] The records sold briskly, raising Williams to national prominence. Soon after the recording session she signed on as Kirk's permanent second pianist, playing solo gigs and working as a freelance arranger for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. In 1937, she produced In the Groove (Brunswick), a collaboration with Dick Wilson, and Benny Goodman asked her to write a blues song for his band. The result was "Roll 'Em", a boogie-woogie piece based on the blues, which followed her successful "Camel Hop", named for Goodman's radio show sponsor, Camel cigarettes. Goodman tried to put Williams under contract to write for him exclusively, but she refused, preferring to freelance instead.[10]

In 1942, Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the Twelve Clouds of Joy, returning again to Pittsburgh. She was joined there by bandmate Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she formed a six-piece ensemble that included Art Blakey on drums. After an engagement in Cleveland, Baker left to join Duke Ellington's orchestra. Williams joined the band in New York City, then traveled to Baltimore, where she and Baker were married. She traveled with Ellington and arranged several tunes for him, including "Trumpet No End" (1946), her version of "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin.[11] She also sold Ellington on performing "Walkin' and Swingin'". Within a year she had left Baker and the group and returned to New York.

Mary Lou Williams in her apartment with Jack Teagarden, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones and Dizzy Gillespie

Williams accepted a job at the Café Society Downtown, started a weekly radio show called Mary Lou Williams's Piano Workshop on WNEW, and began mentoring and collaborating with younger bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. In 1945, she composed the bebop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Gillespie. "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", Williams recalled in Melody Maker.

In 1945, she wrote the "Zodiac Suite" in which each of the twelve parts corresponds to a sign of the zodiac. She recorded the suite with Jack Parker and Al Lucas and performed it at Town Hall in New York City with an orchestra and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.[12]

In 1952, Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years. When she returned to the United States she took a hiatus from performing, converting in 1956 to Roman Catholicism. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. Two priests and Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band.

Father Peter O'Brien, a Catholic priest, became her close friend and personal manager in the 1960s. They found new venues for jazz performance at a time when no more than two clubs in Manhattan offered jazz full-time. In addition to club work, she played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and made television appearances. Throughout the 1960s, her composing concentrated on sacred music, hymns and masses. One of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed by the esteemed choreographer Alvin Ailey and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou's Mass in 1971.[13] About the work, Ailey commented, "If there can be a Bernstein Mass, a Mozart Mass, a Bach Mass, why can't there be Mary Lou's Mass?" [14] Williams performed the revision of Mary Lou's Mass, her most acclaimed work, on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.[15]

She wrote and performed religious jazz music such as Black Christ of the Andes (1963), a hymn in honor of the St. Martin de Porres; two short works, Anima Christi and Praise the Lord. In this period, Williams put much effort into working with youth choirs to perform her works, including mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City before a gathering of over three thousand. She set up a charitable organization and opened thrift stores in Harlem, directing the proceeds, along with ten percent of her own earnings, to musicians in need. As a 1964 Time article explained, "Mary Lou thinks of herself as a 'soul' player -- a way of saying that she never strays far from melody and the blues, but deals sparingly in gospel harmony and rhythm. 'I am praying through my fingers when I play,' she says.'I get that good "soul sound", and I try to touch people's spirits.'"[16] She performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965, with a jazz festival group.

Throughout the 1970s, her career flourished, including numerous albums, including as solo pianist and commentator on the recorded The History of Jazz. She returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. She could also be seen playing nightly in Greenwich Village at The Cookery, a new club run by her old boss from her Café Society days, Barney Josephson. That engagement too, was recorded.

In April 1975, she played her highly regarded jazz spiritual, "Mary Lou's Mass" at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. It marked the first time a jazz musician had played at the church.[4]

She had a two-piano performance with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall in 1977.

She accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence (from 1977 to 1981), co-teaching the History of Jazz with Father Peter O'Brien and directing the Duke Jazz Ensemble. With a light teaching schedule, she also did many concert and festival appearances, conducted clinics with youth, and in 1978, performed at the White House. She participated in Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 1978.

Later years

Her final recording, Solo Recital (Montreux Jazz Festival, 1978), three years before her death, had a medley encompassing spirituals, ragtime, blues and swing. Other highlights include Williams's reworkings of "Tea for Two", "Honeysuckle Rose", and her two compositions "Little Joe from Chicago", and "What's Your Story Morning Glory". Other tracks include "Medley: The Lord Is Heavy", "Old Fashion Blues", "Over the Rainbow", "Offertory Meditation", "Concerto Alone at Montreux", and "The Man I Love".

In 1981, Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina at the age of 71. Music legends Dizzie Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Andy Kirk were all in attendance at her funeral at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.[6] She was buried in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh.[17] Looking back at the end of her life, Mary Lou Williams said, "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."[18] She was known as "the first lady of the jazz keyboard".[19] Williams was one of the first women to be successful in jazz.[20]

Awards and honors

  • Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972 [21] and 1977.
  • Nominee 1971 Grammy Awards, Best Jazz Performance - Group, for the album Giants, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Mary Lou Williams[22]
  • Honorary degree from Fordham University in New York in 1973[14]
  • In 1980 Williams founded the Mary Lou Williams Foundation
  • Honorary degree from Rockhurst College in Kansas City in 1980.[23]
  • Received the 1981 Duke University's Trinity Award for service to the university, an award voted on by Duke University students.[5][6]

Legacy

  • In 1983, Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture[24]
  • Since 1996, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.[25]
  • Since 2000, her archives are preserved at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark.[26]
  • A Pennsylvania State Historic Marker is placed at 328 Lincoln Avenue, Lincoln Elementary School, Pittsburgh, PA, noting her accomplishments and the location of the school she attended.[27]
  • In 2000, trumpeter Dave Douglas released the album Soul on Soul as a tribute to her, featuring original arrangements of her music and new pieces inspired by her work.
  • The 2000 album Impressions of Mary Lou by pianist John Hicks featured eight of her compositions.
  • The Dutch Jazz Orchestra researched and played rediscovered works of Williams on their 2005 album Lady Who Swings the Band.[28]
  • In 2006, Geri Allen's Mary Lou Williams Collective released their album Zodiac Suite: Revisited.
  • A YA historical novel based on Mary Lou Williams and her early life, entitled Jazz Girl, by Sarah Bruce Kelly, was published in 2010.
  • A children's book based on Mary Lou Williams, entitled The Little Piano Girl, by Ann Ingalls and Maryann MacDonald with illustrations by Giselle Potter, was published in 2010.[28]
  • A poetry book by Yona Harvey entitled Hemming the Water was published in 2013, inspired by Williams and featuring the poem "Communion with Mary Lou Williams".
  • In 2013, the American Musicological Society published Mary Lou Williams' Selected Works for Big Band, a compilation of 11 of her big band scores.[28]
  • In 2015, an award-winning documentary film entitled, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band, produced and directed by Carol Bash, premiered on American Public Television and was screened at various domestic and international film festivals.[29][30][31]
  • In 2018 What'sHerName women's history podcast aired the episode "THE MUSICIAN Mary Lou Williams," [32] with guest expert 'Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band,' producer and director Carol Bash.[33]
  • Mary Lou Williams Lane, a street near 10th and Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri, was named after the renowned jazz artist.[23]

Discography

As leader

Year Title Label
1945 The Zodiac Suite Folkways
1953 The First Lady of the Piano Vogue
1953 A Keyboard History Jazztone
1959 Messin' 'Round in Montmartre Storyville
1963 Black Christ of the Andes Folkways
1964 Music for Peace Mary
1964 Mary Lou's Mass Mary
1970 From the Heart Chiaroscuro
1974 Zoning Folkways
1975 Free Spirits Steeplechase
1977 Embraced Pablo
1977 My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me Pablo
1978 Solo Recital Pablo
1993 Town Hall '45: The Zodiac Suite Vintage Jazz Classics
1994 Live at the Cookery Chiaroscuro
1999 At Rick's Café Americain Storyville
2002 Live at the Keystone Korner HighNote
2004 Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Guest Mary Lou Williams Jazz Alliance

As featured artist

With Dizzy Gillespie

Further reading

  • Buehrer, Theodore E., ed. (2013). Mary's Ideas: Mary Lou Williams's Development as a Big Band Leader. Music of the United States of America (MUSA) vol. 25. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.
  • Kernodle, Tammy L. "Williams, Mary Lou". Grove Art Online. 

External links

References

  1. ^ Kernodle, Tammy L. Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, (2004); ISBN 1-55553-606-9
  2. ^ a b Frank., Driggs, (2005). Kansas City jazz : from ragtime to bebop : a history. Haddix, Chuck. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780195307122. OCLC 57002870. 
  3. ^ "Mary Lou Williams". Biography. Retrieved . 
  4. ^ a b "Kansas City's early queen of jazz dies at 71". The Kansas City Star. May 29, 1981. 
  5. ^ a b Wilson, John S. (1981-05-30). "Mary Lou Williams, a Jazz Great, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved . 
  6. ^ a b c "Mary Lou Williams: Jazz for the Soul | Smithsonian Folkways Magazine". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved . 
  7. ^ Dahl, Linda. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, Pantheon Books, p. 29 (2000); ISBN 0-375-40899-1
  8. ^ "No Kitten on the Keys", Time magazine, July 26, 1943.
  9. ^ Max Jones Jazz Talking: Profiles, Interviews, and Other Riffs on Jazz Musicians, Da Capo Press, 2000, p. 190; ISBN 0-306-80948-6
  10. ^ Karin Pendle, American Women Composers, Routledge, 1997, p. 117; ISBN 90-5702-145-5
  11. ^ Duke Ellington Music Is My Mistress, Da Capo Press, 1976, p. 169; ISBN 0-306-80033-0
  12. ^ Yanow, Scott (2000). Swing. Miller Freeman. pp. 220-. ISBN 978-1-61774-476-1. Retrieved 2017. 
  13. ^ "Mary Lou's Mass | Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater". Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 2010-03-16. Retrieved . 
  14. ^ a b "Mary Lou Williams Centennial On JazzSet". NPR.org. Retrieved . 
  15. ^ Briscoe, James R. (1997). Contemporary Anthology of Music by Women. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 388. ISBN 0-253-21102-6. 
  16. ^ "The Prayerful One". Time. 1964-02-21. Retrieved . 
  17. ^ Mary Lou Williams at Find a Grave
  18. ^ Dahl, Linda. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams (2001), p. 379.
  19. ^ "Mary Lou Williams, First Lady of Keyboard Jazz". NPR.org. Retrieved . 
  20. ^ "First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard on JSTOR". JSTOR 1214051. 
  21. ^ Kernodle, Tammy Lynn (2004). Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. Boston: Northeastern University Press. p. 247. ISBN 1-55553-606-9. 
  22. ^ "The Envelope: Hollywood's Awards and Industry Insider". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2017. 
  23. ^ a b "Mary Lou Williams". The Pendergast Years. Retrieved . 
  24. ^ Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, Duke University.
  25. ^ Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Archived 2007-10-10 at the Wayback Machine., The Kennedy Center.
  26. ^ Mary Lou Williams at rutgers.edu
  27. ^ "Mary Lou Williams - Pennsylvania Historical Markers on". Waymarking.com. 2006-12-03. Retrieved . 
  28. ^ a b c "Mary Lou Williams, 1910-1981" Archived 2015-02-26 at the Wayback Machine., Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
  29. ^ a b The Mary Lou Williams Project Paradox Films, 2014.
  30. ^ a b Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band Independent Television Service (ITVS). Retrieved 2018-02-02.
  31. ^ a b Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band Premieres on Public Television in April 2015 Independent Television Service (ITVS). 2015-03-17.
  32. ^ https://www.whatshernamepodcast.com/mary-lou-williams/
  33. ^ https://www.whatshernamepodcast.com/our-guests/
  34. ^ The Legacy of Mary Lou Williams | University Place | PBS, retrieved  

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