Monday, May 10

Soul on soul ... the Mary Lou Williams Centennial

W. Eugene Smith/Time & Life Pictures
Today I wanted to make at least a brief mention of the 100th birthday of jazz great Mary Lou Williams, born one fine Spring morning on May 8, 1910. The NPR jazz site, "A Blog Supreme" is commemorating this singular pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and educator in a worthy tribute written by Patrick Jarenwattananon that you can find here.

Perhaps no other musician in the history of jazz can be so rightfully said as Mary Lou Williams to have spanned every major era of jazz and continued to evolve through them so richly, never becoming locked into any one style or period. From ragtime, boogie woogie, stride and blues piano to the swing era, onto bebop and through to post-bop and beyond, she continued to grow and flow with the music, her life, composing and playing becoming a lustrous and fecund compendium of jazz history. "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary" is how Duke Ellington described her permanent freshness and openness to the music's new currents. "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" (Duke Ellington, Music is My Mistress).

"I’m the only living musician that has played all the eras.” That was certainly not an idle boast she made in 1978, three years before her death, on the first-ever Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" radio show. To hear that delightful interview, master class and performance from the debut Piano Jazz series (still going strong today, 32 years later), visit the link at NPR here.

History of Jazz by Mary Lou Williams, 1979
Williams did not just play in and survive these different periods. She was a major presence and influence in all of them, although her importance was always felt more by her fellow musicians than by the general public. She turned professional in her early teens, playing stride piano to help support her 10 step-brothers and sisters. By the age of 15 she had already played with Duke Ellington in one of his earliest bands, the Washingtonians, and been noticed by and gigged with Louis Armstrong, before becoming composer, arranger and pianist in Andy Kirk's "Twelve Clouds of Joy". Soon her composing and arranging skills were much sought after by Ellington, Benny Goodman, Earth "Father" Hines, Jimmy Lunceford (for whom she wrote "What's your story morning glory?" in the 1930s) and other giants of the swing era.

Always in the right place at the right time, she moved to Harlem in the early 1940s and was a major albeit behind-the-scenes mover in the birth of bebop. Her apartment on Convent Avenue was the unofficial "bebop salon", where she was a friend, teacher and mentor to the pioneering bop pianists, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, who would stop by her place on a nearly daily basis, along with Charlie Parker (whom she had met back in Kansas City "when he was in knee pants"), Dizzy Gillespie, Errol Garner and a stellar list of luminaries of the "Harlem post-Renaissance" revolution.

In the 1950s, after converting to Catholicism, she retired from public performances and active career as musician to take up her spiritual pursuits and charitable work. Years later, Dizzy Gillespie and others convinced her to return to music. She drew on many of the elements from all those periods to pen some of her best known sacred works, including 'Mass for Peace' —which ever since Alvin Ailey choreographed it for a major work of his dance company has been known as 'Mary Lou's Mass'— and 'Black Christ of the Andes', from which I embed 'Praise the Lord' below...

Praise the lord, indeed. I have sometimes wondered if I had heard music like this in church as a child (I actually remember mass in Latin!), whether I would have ever departed the church for the shimmering stars of astronomy and the ambrosia clouds of Mount Olympus.

To hear two beautiful live 1970s performances by Mary Lou Williams, visit this link for the radio program JazzSet, hosted by Dee Dee Bridgewater.

* * *
Painting of Lena Horne by Merryl Jaye, who has
a wonderful collection of jazz portraits at her site.
As I write this post about Mary Lou Williams, it is with sadness that I note the passing of Lena Horne. For an earlier post featuring the great lady of jazz, click here.


  1. It's a good question, Lorenzo. Would I have, could I have, left the church if there had been music like this? This clip of her mass is something to get lost in, to lose myself in. Even though I hadn't heard of her, it sort of feels like an eternal moment to celebrate her today, this way, after all, finally, how-do-you-do.

    Thank you for the jazz history. And yes, farewell, Lena lovely Lena.

    (And thanks a bunch for the 'caught our eye' punch.)

  2. happy birthday jazz! i realy enjoyed the vid...a divine moment indeed...

  3. Interesting way to kick start my day this early Monday morn as I crack up the speakers -- I remember too the church when they still did the mass in Latin. Thought provoking question you pose -- would I could I -- although I did -- and never looked back - This music sings loudly of the church of the eternal of the spheres -- the divine in every thing and every sentient being of which one does not need a building in which to celebrate the divine - it is carried in ones heart.

    Lena Horn was 92 and still a beautiful and graceful woman to the end of her days.


  4. I cannot believe I am unfamiliar with her when I studied Jazz History and Music History so diligently in college!!! Heard the program to which you refer begin on NHPR yesterday and was intrigued but didn't get to hear much.

    I listened to the youtube piece you embedded and it sounds like a wild Christian rap.

    As for Lena, well, she had quite the life. She was a beautiful woman with a unique voice. Her interviews were often edgy and angry and I always thought she was pissed off about the racial prejudices she encountered.

  5. I've really enjoyed your jazzy birthday celebrations, Lorenzo. I'm particularly fascinated by Williams' drawing of the history of jazz. It speaks volumes of her deep rooted involvement in the movement. Super-duper post, as always, my friend.

  6. "I have sometimes wondered if I had heard music like this in church as a child...whether I would have ever departed the church for the shimmering stars of astronomy and the ambrosia clouds of Mount Olympus."

    I hear you on this.

    Music speaks on a celestial level, doesn't it? It doesn't need symbols, pews, or Bibles, just a welcome ear.

    I played improvisational jazz as a teenager (the tenor sax) and loved it. I learned then, something of what it meant to let go and let the music and moment be your guide, not your mind.

    Thanks, Lorenzo for such a fine post.

  7. Cool-what a fascinating history of not just a person, but a glimpse into an era.

    In the Southern US state where I grew up, you could heard some pretty soulful music, but nothing that jazzed up :)

  8. Ruth: Yes, never too late for an eternal moment of "how-do-you-do".

  9. Brian: I'm glad you liked the video with the piece from Black Christ of the Andes. Actually, I think the music is even better on the audio links I include, if you have the time of course.

  10. Joanny: Yes, a timeless beauty and grace were always there in Lena Horne right to the end. I agree, the greatest cathedral is in our hearts.

  11. California Girl: Yes, one of the reasons for posting on Mary Lou's centennial was precisely that she is not as well known as I feel she should be. Curious what you say about Lena Horne's anger in interviews. I actually found she always seemed rather poised about the nonsense she had to fight through, almost as if amused. But perhaps that was only much later in her life, once her artistic and professional triumphs and recognition has become so clear.

  12. willow: thanks. I'm heartened that the post resonated with you. The audio links to the NPR sites that I included have so many more of her reflections on jazz history. They are each around one hour long, so I did not embed them and just included the linke.. If you have the time, though they are very worthwhile and the music is great.

  13. Terresa: I bet you played some soulful tenor sax! I like what you say about learning "to let go and let the music and moment be your guide, not your mind". That is so true of writing poetry as well.

  14. Art: You may be pleased to know that Mary Lou was born in Georgia, like you (I believe). The song I posted is raucous and infectious, but there are much more subtle and gently soulful expressions of her musicmaking talent on the links I included. Check them out...

  15. Very interesting post on Mary Lou Williams - did not know much about her til now. Odd that you posted it just as the amazing Lena Horne passed away. THanks

  16. Well, I'll admit to not having heard of her until now.
    The link is fabulous. Soulful and so cool.


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