Experiencing Mary Lou Williams' Music
Posted by olvlzl.
About four years ago, while babysitting my nieces, wanting to delay the unhappy hour when they would ask to watch TV, I put on a disc from one of those Smithsonian anthologies, a history of jazz piano. Suspecting that my nieces would be more receptive to the music if they knew it was by a woman, I chose a disc that began with Mary Lou William’s “Nicole” though I didn’t know it myself. The effects of the next three minutes are still with me, it was life changing. Mary Lou Williams was someone I knew about and had heard but there was something about that slow, extraordinarily subtle blues that opened my mind up. I was hooked. Buying many other recordings, listening to her astoundingly original and varied production - even boogie woogie worth listening to, Boogie Misterioso, Waltz Boogie, ..... Mary Lou Williams was not only the foremost “female jazz artist” of her time, she wasn’t only a jazz musician who could stand with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus as composer and performer, like them, she was one of the great creative geniuses of music of any kind.
It’s one of the down sides of words that the essence of music is impossible to represent through them. Mary Lou Williams, in her notes accompanying the recording “Embraced” expressed her suspicion of written descriptions, theories and textbooks*. She was just about entirely self-taught and didn’t learn to write and read printed music until well on in her life as a working musician. Many people might be surprised to hear it said but that might have been one of the things that made her such an excellent and curious musician. She learned music directly, as sound and feeling, learning to produce sound as sound not as symbols on a page or names of chords. Maybe even the tactile excitement that any musician feels when performing at that level of virtuosity was secondary. The sounds and their meaning as music were her purpose. The results were noted by some of the best musicians working since after she learned to write out music, she was one of the most sought after arrangers and composers of her time. She influenced some of the greatest of them, Jack Teagarden and Bud Powell (both proposed marriage to her), Monk, Garner, etc. How she too often becomes a footnote instead of a chapter heading has to be due to her gender.
What did I hear in “Nichole” and later in other recordings? I wish I could link to free MP3s to show you. If you’re curious, willing to spend a few dollars and have the right kind of system you might see what I mean by listening to her compostions “Mary’s Waltz”, “My First Date With You” and the rest of her recordings here**.
What do I hear? It’s tempting to mention the time, barely remembered, when this was still relatively new music. Impressions of moody pencil drawings just beginning to open up the world into African-american culture to a white kid living in the middle of nowhere, vaguely remembered music heard on “educational radio and TV”, the modern designs of the 50s, the genius of putting enormous meaning into small details.... but that wouldn’t really mean anything, would it? It’s just that I’d like you to have an experience that means so much to me and to encourage people to remember a very great and beautiful composer and pianist.
*This is the astounding recording of her joint performance with Cecil Taylor. Right up to the end of her long life as a musician she was listening and performing on the frontiers. While some criticized her for her “history of the music” programming approach that she took in the last decade it wasn’t nostalgia or even retrospective, it was continued development.
** Barbara Carroll was also a fine pianist who Williams admired.
I would recommend any of her recordings as worth hearing, her brilliant playing and constant searching never diminished, so the last ones are as daring as the early ones. Her Live at the Cookery album has a late version of Waltz Boogie, My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me is also one of my favorites. “Embraced” is quite a departure. Some have said that it was more like open warfare than an embrace, though it’s more like the encounter of two enormously original and daring musicians of different generations. Cecil Taylor remains on the frontiers of the avant garde.
The best biography is Morning Glory by Linda Dahl, University of California Press