In St. Louis once," pianist Mary Lou Williams told an interviewer in 1979, "I was sitting on the stand waiting for the band to come in, and I heard someone say, 'Get that little girl off the stage so the band can start up.' But I just stayed there, and when the band came in and I started playing, the house went into an uproar, cheering and laughing."
It rarely took long for Williams to get attention, even in the thoroughly male world of jazz. "At a time when jazz was definitely a good old boy's line of work," says Derek Gordon, the Kennedy Center's senior vice president responsible for jazz programming, "Mary Lou was the one woman who commanded the respect of every jazz musician." The Kennedy Center remembers Williams May 8 through 10 with the eighth Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, an annual three-day showcase for leading women jazz musicians.
Mary Scruggs‹the "Lou" was added by a record producer‹was born in Atlanta and grew up in a musical household in Pittsburgh. Her gifts became apparent at an early age. "My mother used to hold me on her lap while she practiced on an old-fashioned pump organ," she wrote. "One day, my hands beat hers to the keyboard and I picked out a melody." Possessed of an uncannily precise ear‹her classmates would drop pots and pans and ask her to identify the pitch of the clang‹she rapidly absorbed ragtime, boogie-woogie, and blues, as well as classical music. By the time she was six, she was playing the piano and passing the hat while her stepfather gambled. As a teenager, she toured with vaudeville and dance acts, including John Williams's Jazz Syncopaters; in 1925, at age 17, she married Williams, a saxophonist.
In 1928 the Williamses joined tuba player Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy and settled in Kansas City. There, a fertile scene was producing the next great wave in jazz: the chugging, blues-based Kansas City swing of Bennie Moten, Walter Page, and Count Basie. Under Kirk's tutelage, Williams learned to set her musical ideas down on paper. By the middle of the decade, Kirk's band had had several hits thanks to Williams's compositions‹as well as her buoyant, swinging piano‹and she began to get requests for arrangements and original tunes from other bandleaders. While the band drove endlessly around the country, Williams would compose by the light of a flashlight, writing for Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and others.
Pianist and educator Billy Taylor, the Kennedy Center's jazz advisor and the creator of the Women in Jazz Festival, heard Williams and the Kirk band when they passed through Washington, D.C., in the late 1930s. "She had assimilated all of the styles that had preceded her chronologically: she could play swing, she could play ragtime, she could play boogie-woogie, she could play blues," Taylor remembers. He also heard something new: in Kansas City, Williams had been jamming after hours with pianists Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron as they stretched the language of jazz. "She had such a wonderful harmonic sense, which was really pointing toward the future," he says.
After a decade with Kirk, Williams's marriage had soured, and she was weary of reproducing the solos from her hit records every night. She married trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker, and after a six-month stint with the Duke Ellington band, moved to New York City. There, she settled into a long stretch at Café Society Downtown.
Monk and other young musicians had brought the modern jazz revolution to New York, and Williams's apartment became a vital stop on the nascent bebop circuit. She also began to write for the beboppers, creating the classic "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Dizzy Gillespie. "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," she said, "and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later."
Williams expanded her palette further in 1945, writing The Zodiac Suite, a 12-part tone poem that evoked jazz musicians born under each zodiacal sign. The following year, she led the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in three of its sections‹and threw in a boogie-woogie, scored for orchestra, for good measure. "The boys in the symphony applauded louder than the audience," she remembered.
In 1952 Williams moved to Europe, where she performed to great excitement in the jazz press. But after two years, she had a breakdown and returned to New York, in the throes of a spiritual crisis. She would not return to jazz until 1957, when she converted to the Catholic Church. But she had a new focus: in 1962 she collaborated with her priest, Father Anthony Woods, on Black Christ of the Andes, about Martin de Porres, the first black saint of the Americas, and would write three masses in the 1960s and '70s. She also directed her considerable energy toward teaching and charitable activities, founding the Bel Canto Foundation to help troubled musicians.
The music of Williams's last decades‹she died in 1981‹was complex and sometimes dissonant. But it remained anchored in the blues and in the struggle of African Americans. As a teacher at Duke University, she would draw a tree to illustrate the history of jazz for her students. The names of the great figures of swing and bebop were scribbled on leaves (commercial rock music and the avant-garde were on dead branches); the massive trunk of the tree was made up of Kansas City swing, ragtime, blues, and spirituals; on the roots was written "suffering."
When Billy Taylor became the Kennedy Center's jazz advisor, the first project he proposed was a festival devoted to women in jazz, named for Mary Lou Williams. "I wanted to do something in Mary Lou's honor," he says. "I was unhappy that she had not gotten the kind of recognition that she deserved. Mary Lou was such a shining example of the kind of thing that is mandatory if you're going to play jazz: the competitive spirit, yet the creative spirit."
The festival recognizes Williams's generosity as well. "There was just a spiritual quality about the way she approached other musicians," Taylor says, "and how she cared for people that she admired and just little things that she did. Here was a soulful woman who swung."
Ben Mattison is the Managing Editor of Andante.com.