Tuesday, February 23, 2016



   So I admit I watched PBS last night and fell in love with Mary Lou Williams, an incredible jazz pianist and composer and arranger and conductor that we all should know!  That we don't is a testament to sexism and racism rampant in every aspect of our society.  Well, at least now we can begin to shine a light on some of these amazing people.  Thank you PBS.  Thank you Carol Bash!

   Immensely talented as a pianist, Mary Lou Williams was fortunately supported in some of her efforts by a husband who asked that she also be hired to play.  But she suffered the double whammy of being a woman and "dark" skinned at a time when only light skinned women were being hired.
   One of the most unusual facts of the PBS movie was that Mary Lou Williams got a nose job.  Why would she think that she needed that?  So beautiful and so talented -- I know I am being rhetorical by asking this.  But it makes me both furious and flabbergasted to think that she would have had to do this.
   "Mary Lou Williams once said: Jazz is love. You have to lay into and let it flow."

   Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in 1910 and died in 1981.  She was raised in Pittsburgh where she played professionally at a very young age.  "Trained by her mother, and aided by her gift of perfect pitch, she was playing professionally by the age of seven."
She joined a group led by John Williams whom she married.   She and her husband joined the Kirk Band, but she was not made a regular until April 1930.  It was Mary Lou Williams' distinctive style that gave the Kirk band its sound.  I am borrowing from the PBS biography -  "She also provided noteworthy swing-band scores for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, and others."

   "After leaving Kirk in 1942, Williams formed her own small group in New York with her second husband, Shorty Baker, as trumpeter. She briefly served as staff arranger for Duke Ellington, writing for him the well-knownTrumpet No End in 1946. In the same year, three movements from theZodiac Suite were performed at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic, a very early instance of the recognition of jazz by a leading symphony orchestra. By now Williams had become an important figure in New York bop, contributing scores to Dizzy Gillespie's big band and advancing the careers of many younger musicians. From 1952 to 1954 she was based in Europe."
   "She retired from music in 1954 to pursue religious and charitable interests, but resumed her career in 1957. She remained active throughout the 1960s and 1970s, leading her own groups in New York clubs, composing sacred works for jazz orchestra and voices, and devoting much of her time to teaching. In 1970, as a solo pianist, and providing her own commentary, she recorded The History of Jazz. Towards the end of her life she received a number of honorary doctorates from American universities, and from 1977 taught on the staff of Duke University."

   "Williams was long regarded as the only significant female musician in jazz, both as an instrumentalist and as a composer, but her achievement is remarkable by any standards. She was an important swing pianist, with a lightly rocking, legato manner based on subtly varied stride and boogie-woogie bass patterns. Yet by constantly exploring and extending her style she retained the status of a modernist for most of her career. She adapted easily in the 1940s to the new bop idiom, and in the 1960s her playing attained a level of complexity and dissonance that rivaled avant-garde jazz pianism of the time, but without losing an underlying blues feeling. A similar breadth may be seen in her work as a composer and arranger, from her expert swing-band scores for Kirk (Walkin' and Swingin', Mary's Idea) to the large-scale sacred works of the 1960s and 1970s. Her Waltz Boogieof 1946 was one of the earliest attempts to adapt jazz to non-duple meters. Among her sacred works are a cantata, Black Christ of the Andes (1963), and three masses, of which the third, Mary Lou's Mass (1970), became well known in a version choreographed by Alvin Ailey."

   She was also the first woman to start her own label - Mary Records - as well as a Music Publishing Company.
   Please see the movie -- you will learn so much much more about this remarkable woman!

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