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.

Jazz CDs reviewed – early September 2012

September 1, 2012

Marshall Gilkes Sound Stories (Alternate Side ASR 005)

An exceptionally attractive CD featuring jazz trombonist Marshall Gilkes and jazz tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin in a selection of the former’s compositions. Backed by pianist Adam Birnbaum, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Eric Doob, the two horn players ably display their fluent talent on thoughtful ballads and hard swinging yet still lyrical pieces. Although resident in New York for more than a decade, Gilkes decided to move to Germany where he joined the WDR Big Band, an organization very well known to jazz record collectors internationally. Performing at venues around the world, and teaching at leading music institutions wherever he travels, Gilkes has built an excellent reputation and the music on Sound Stories confirms that this acclaim is entirely justified. Matching Gilkes is McCaslin, whose reputation is similarly international and equally justifiable. These are very fine jazz musicians with a lot to say and the skill to say it with great flair.







Pete Zimmer Prime Of Life (Tippin’ TIP 1108)

This album from jazz drummer Pete Zimmer vividly demonstrates why he is so highly regarded. His playing is light, subtle and always swinging; and with Peter Bernstein, guitar, and Peter Slavov, bass, he builds a flowing, rhythmic undertow that takes the music along with enviable energy. The fourth member of this quartet is master jazz tenor saxophonist George Garzone whose wit and invention are apparent at every turn. The music here is all from the pens of Zimmer (six titles) and Garzone (three titles); and all are melodically attractive and spacious, allowing opportunities for solos, mainly from Garzone and Bernstein, that are fiery and inventive. Previous albums by Zimmer include Common Man (Tippin’ TIP 1101), Burnin’ Live At The Jazz Standard (Tippin’ TIP 1102), Judgment (Tippin’ TIP 1103) and Chillin’ Live @ Jazz Factory (Tippin’ TIP 1104). All of these are fine examples of contemporary jazz played by some of today’s best young jazz musicians.

pete zimmer cd






Michael Treni Big Band Boy’s Night Out (Bell Productions)

This sleek set by Michael Treni’s 16-piece big band is his fourth since returning to jazz music after a long spell in the outside world. After studying trombone and music theory, Treni played with many leading jazz musicians but after being pipped at the post (by Curtis Fuller) for a job with Art Blakey, he decided to turn his attention to composing and arranging in the commercial music field. This was in the late 1980s and, together with innovative work in wireless technology this is how he has since spent much of his time since then. Fortunately, Treni never lost his love for jazz and for the past decade he has been writing for and playing with a big band that he has filled with an interesting mix of seasoned jazz and session veterans leavened with a some brightly shining newcomers. The music played here includes three Treni originals that sit comfortably alongside pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Something’s Coming, George Shearing, Lullaby Of Birdland and Billy Strayhorn, U.M.M.G.. There are also a couple of charts by Jerry Coker. Many good soloists can be heard, among them Jerry Bergonzi, Vincent Cutro, Frank Elmo, Charles Blenzig and, of course, Michael Treni. Good music, well played, and a treat for fans of contemporary big band music for whom, these days, there is never enough around.







The Mary Lou Williams Collective  Zodiac Suite: Revisited (Mary Records M 104)

Dedicated from one fine jazz pianist to another, this exceptional CD vividly displays the remarkable legacy of Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) and at the same time makes clear that thanks to Geri Allen that legacy is in safe hands. Accompanied by bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, Geri Allen constantly brings to mind just how good and advanced was Zodiac Suite, a Mary Lou Williams composition from 1945. Allen treats this masterly work with respect yet never loses its inherent vitality. This music is timeless. In addition to the suite’s twelve movements, Allen also plays MLW’s Intermission and, with Andrew Cyrille replacing Billy Hart, adds Herbie Nichols’ The Bebop Waltz and Allen’s own composition, the appropriately titled Thank You Madam. This thoroughly absorbing CD is strongly recommended to all who love good jazz piano playing.








Ezra Weiss/Rob Scheps Our Path To This Moment (Roark)

A fine young pianist who has earned a substantial reputation in the New York area, Ezra Weiss is also an accomplished ASCAP award-winning composer. In his performances, Ez (which is how he likes to be known) offers a distinctive contemporary touch to familiar pieces and he is especially interesting when playing his own compositions. On Get Happy (Roark) is accompanied by, collectively, Kevin Louis, Andy Hunter, Andrae Murchison, Antonio Hart, Kelly Roberge, Corcoran Hall, Jason Brown, and Billy Hart, along with singers Heidi Krenn, Samantha Grabler, and Elif Caglar. Throughout, Ez is subtly supportive and powerful and imaginative in his solos. On The Shirley Horn Suite (Roark), with only Corcoran Holt, Steve Williams, and singer Shirley Nanette, Ez pays admiring tribute to one of the best and much-missed jazz artists of recent years. This is delightful music, much of it composed by Ez, all of it lovingly performed. With a new release, Ezra Weiss’s talent as composer and arranger is spotlighted.Ezra Weiss CD

On Our Path To This Moment (Roark) by The Rob Scheps Big Band, crisp ensemble playing is interspersed with solos, fiery or reflective as the mood demands, that are always interesting. Among the soloists are Robert Crowell, Scott Hall, Tom Hill, Paul Mazzio, Rob Scheps, David Valdez, and special guest Greg Gisbert. On a few of the tracks, Ez takes over the piano from Ramsey Embick, but it is his writing that form the means and the end of this fascinating example of one of today’s young masters.


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