Morning Glory – Mary Lou Williams

September 15, 2017

Many jazz instrumentalists continue to exert influence long after death, but sadly few of them are women. I will refrain from the strange exercise of list making and simply say that were I to do so one name thereon – however short the list – would be Mary Lou Williams. Considered only as a pianist, she would rank high; and she would be similarly ranked if considered as a composer. But as an arranger, she has to be among the very best of her generation. And all of this is, as it should be, regardless of her sex. She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, in Atlanta, Georgia, on 8 May 1910. From early childhood she proved to be a strikingly gifted pianist, becoming a professional as a young teenager. In her mid-teens she married saxophonist-bandleader John Williams with whom she toured mainly in the Midwest. Before long, they were both in Terrence Holder’s popular Territory band and following Holder’s departure, the band became known as Andy Kirk and his Clouds Of Joy. Fans and fellow musicians alike held the band in high regard. In part this was due to the skillful playing of the sidemen, but Mary Lou’s arrangements were by far the most important factor in the band’s success. AA clouds A notable quality of her writing is the manner in which she accommodates the abilities of the band’s sidemen (a characteristic also present in the work of Duke Ellington). So skilled was she that other bandleaders took notice and soon, in addition to her playing and arranging duties with Kirk, she was writing charts for front-rank leaders, including Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Earl Hines. When her marriage to Williams ended she was briefly married to Harold ‘Shorty’ Baker with whom she co-led a band for a while. From the early-1940s into the mid-1950s she continued to perform and arrange, working comfortably with bop musicians, including Art Blakey who played in one of her bands, and Dizzy Gillespie, for whose big band she wrote In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee. She also composed a number of longer works, including The Zodiac Suite, which was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Of all her talents, it is for her arrangements that Mary Lou Williams will be best remembered, and in particular those she wrote for the Clouds of Joy, among them some of her own compositions, which include Walkin’ and Swingin’, Twinklin’, Cloudy and Little Joe from Chicago. The Clouds also recorded The Lady Who Swings the Band, a song written for her by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn. For Benny Goodman she wrote Camel Hop and he had a hit with her Roll ’Em – while Jimmie Lunceford had a hit with What’s Your Story Morning Glory, the title of which was to become synonymous with her.

In the late 1950s, Mary Lou took time away from music performance. She converted to Catholicism and, immersing herself in her faith, began composing sacred music, including Black Christ of the Andes, Anima Christi, Praise the Lord and perhaps the best known Music for Peace, usually entitled Mary Lou’s Mass.BB mlw mass Subsequently, she performed nationally and internationally, vividly demonstrating the wide range of her musical interests – from the early forms of jazz through swing and bop and into the modern era. Off stage, she could be outspoken and demanding, carrying with her through later life memories of the offhand and sometimes dishonest treatment she received in the music business, bitter recollections of racial discrimination, as well as the action of the US State Department, which ignored her at a time when it was actively spreading American culture through overseas ambassadorial tours by jazz musicians – their pretext appears to have been that she was a religious fanatic whose beliefs suggested that she was unbalanced. Active as a teacher, both informally and formally, Mary Lou’s importance to the fabric of jazz was recognized toward the end of her life when she was honored by several universities. There was also her headline appearance at the inaugural Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival in March 1978 – a performance of Mary Lou’s Mass also took place on that occasion. She performed nationally and internationally as soloist and also occasionally leading small bands.CC mlw These performances were in clubs, concert halls and festivals, the latter including Middlesbrough in July 1978 (the only occasion I was able to hear her live). There is also the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, founded by Billy Taylor, staged annually at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC – May 2017 being the 22nd incarnation. A biography of Mary Lou Williams, Morning Glory by Linda Dahl, was published in 1999; another, Soul on Soul, by Tammy Lynn Kernodle, in 2005; and there is much of interest about her in Carolyn Glenn Brewer’s Changing the Tune, which I reviewed in Jazz Journal (July 2017). A documentary film by Carol Bash, Mary Lou Williams: the Lady Who Swings the Band, appeared in 2015.

Mary Lou Williams died at home in Durham, North Carolina, on 28 May 1981.


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