The picture above is of four great men of the forties, pioneers of bebop and the developers of modern Jazz. From left to right, we have Dizzy Gillespie, innovator of bebop melodic language and one of the creators of Afro-Cuban fusion, Tadd Dameron, innovator of bebop harmony, Hank Jones, the great connector of the swing and bebop eras, and Milt Orent, bassist and staff arranger for NBC (nothing like this picture to get you interested in a guy, and FAST). In the middle, however, is perhaps the most important and striking person in the photograph, Mary Lou Williams.
One of the few unfortunate side effects of this age of NPR and grant organizations is that Mary Lou’s role in the canon seems to have become that of the woman. The one women in the sea of men who actually hung on and made some music. This is not a bad thing to be remembered for, as being a successful black woman in the 40’s was a monumental task in any field, let alone in one that has been completely dominated by men for its entire existence. The problem is that people seem to write her off on other fronts, as they write off Ellington’s piano playing or Mingus’ bass playing. Being brilliant nonpareil composers is very bad for your recognition as an instrumentalist, and the same seems to go for breaking down ancient barriers.
I have tried to go through Jazz history in a chronological way, as I have mentioned before. The reoccurring problem with that approach is that it’s impossible to hit every mark on the way through, and sometimes you have to go back and re-educate yourself on something you’ve missed (I have to go back and listen to some missed Ellington about once every two months, it seems). With Mary Lou, I not only needed to go back, but I needed to tear out pages and pages of the proverbial notebook and rethink about some of the elements that she fostered and brought to the table.
The first music I heard was her work with Andy Kirk in the 30’s. The arrangements are all stellar, both the succinct harmonies and the complex melodies. Not only are the tunes top notch and modern, but as a player she completely keeps up with the likes of on Byas and Shorty Baker, sometime surpassing them in ingenuity (although the Byas on these sessions is earthshattering. A Byas expose is in my near future, for sure). Her touch is one of the best I’ve heard from that era, on par with Basie himself. Her deeply swinging stride language mixed with some modern twists such as hemiola and suspension makes for an extremely interesting See here the melody of “Mess-a-Stomp”, one of the earliest examples of melodic displacement I’ve found.
The next record was “The Zodiac Suite”, which completely turned my head around on Mary Lou and the state of harmony in the 40s. Each piece has its own character, its own language. The harmony is far beyond anything else one would find in that time period, unless you’re listening to Ellington or some inspired Tatum or Garner. Listening to Capricorn makes you think of the afro-cuban 12/8 of Dizzy Gillespie five to ten years later. The language foreshadows Monk as well, complete with idiosyncratic and surreal harmonies and arrangements. Check out this quasi-parallel structure she moves around at the end of Capricorn.
Her work past that remains great, although it is all much harder to find (it’s all pretty hard to find, frankly). Both Aaron Diehl and Dan Nimmer have told me that her solo stuff is really something to look out for, but I can’t seem to find it in any real way. The next thing I spent time with was her duet with Cecil Taylor. The music is as dichotomous as one can find, but I must give it up to the veteran for playing with the radical (according to one of her students, Mary Lou was extremely happy with how the rehearsal went, and was furious about how the recording went. Such is the impulse-driven nature of Cecil, I suppose.)
Of course another sublime beauty of Mary Lou doesn’t lie in her playing. In every work that I’ve read that includes Mary Lou, she was above all a teacher. Stories of her apartment are the stuff of legend, unsurpassed hangs, with Monk showing up at 5:00 am to write a tune, or Dizzy Gillespie sitting down to show the latest harmony off to his friends, or Ben Webster getting into a fistfight over a tune (or maybe just over a drink). She remains the paragon of Jazz community, far before the loft scene in New York happened. She also continued this route of education until the end of her days, teaching in New York. Just looking at the picture at the top of this post fills me with such intense longing; just to be in that room for five minutes would be the greatest thing in the world to me.
Although her accolades continue, whether arranging for Duke Ellington(probably the highest form of acknowledgment in the history of arranging) or following his lead and writing a mass, to me her playing remains supreme. Most of her body of work is still unknown to me, mostly because of the difficulty in finding it. I’ve found a few LPs that suggest to me that there is a lot more out there, a fair bit from Europe in the 50s. As I’ve gone through what I can find, there is not a single track that doesn’t have at least one interesting musical phrase from Mary Lou, something that surprises me, or makes me think differently. It’s a mystery to me why she is not on the highest pedestal that we have to offer.
“It’s not what you play, it’s how you play it.” —Mary Lou Williams
P.S. I sat on this post for a while, and as I was doing so, four different situations arose where Mary Lou was mentioned in the Mainstream Jazz Media, or here in New York. There was a week of her music at Dizzy’s, NPR did a showcase, and there were two articles about her in various jazz websites or well known blogs. Perhaps this means that she’s making a push, but I still find that the focus is on almost exclusively the Zodiac Suite, and really downplays her overall importance and breadth. There’s still work to be done.