|W. Eugene Smith/Time & Life Pictures|
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|
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.
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|Painting of Lena Horne by Merryl Jaye, who has|
a wonderful collection of jazz portraits at her site.