Trading Eights

Mary Lou Williams: Hidden Figure of Piano Jazz

Issue 125

Considering that she wrote arrangements for Duke Ellington and mentored Thelonious Monk, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams should be much more famous than she is. She was also an outstanding player with a warm, almost liquid sound. This is a musician well worth getting to know.

Williams was born Mary Scruggs in 1910, one of 11 siblings in an Atlanta family that moved to Pittsburgh when she was a child. By playing the piano at parties around her neighborhood, she brought badly-needed money into the household. She landed a coveted spot touring on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit at the age of 12, and soon Ellington invited her to sit in on some of his gigs. After she married saxophonist John “Bearcat” Williams, she took over leadership of her husband’s band in Memphis so he could accept work out of town. They both ended up moving to Kansas City, MO to play with the Clouds of Joy, a group directed by Andy Kirk.

When her marriage split up, she worked with Art Blakey in a band in Pittsburgh for a while before moving to New York. Much in demand, she faced mental health problems that prompted her to take a hiatus to devote herself to her faith and to charities, particularly helping substance-addicted musicians get back to work. Her religious explorations led to the composition of several Masses, one of which was choreographed by Alvin Ailey. A beloved music teacher at all levels, she continued to offer advice to fellow professionals and basic instruction to school children until her death in 1981.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Mary Lou Williams.

  1. Track: “Taurus”
    Album: Zodiac Suite
    Label: Folkways
    Year: 1945

Williams is joined by Al Lucas on bass and Jack Parker on drums for the album produced by Folkways founder Moses Asch. She wrote the Zodiac Suite in 1944 and the following year recorded it in the studio and also performed it at the Town Hall in New York City. Interestingly, this was the only complete recording of the work until pianist Geri Allen took on the challenge in 2005.

Each movement of the suite is inspired not only by a Zodiac sign, but also by one or more jazz-world friends whose birthdays fall under that sign. Thus, Duke Ellington (born April 29) is the dedicatee of “Taurus.”

 

  1. Track: “Easy Blues”
    Album: A Keyboard History
    Label: Jazztone
    Year: 1955

Jazztone was a mail-order record club, and they made this album to showcase the many styles of Williams’ playing and composition up to that point. The trio includes Osie Johnson on drums and Wendell Marshall on bass. The final track on Side B is Williams’ composition “Easy Blues.” (Jimi Hendrix altered this tune almost beyond recognition and claimed authorship on People, Hell and Angels.)

Williams’ laid-back swing on this cut is a great explanation of why Ellington loved her style – intensely rhythmic and syncopated yet never bitingly percussive, and always with a sense of motion.

 

  1. Track: “Black Christ of the Andes”
    Album: Black Christ of the Andes
    Label: SABA/Folkways
    Year: 1964

When Williams converted to Catholicism in the 1960s, she let her newfound faith guide her creativity. “Black Christ of the Andes” is an important contribution to 20th-century American choral writing and a precursor to Williams’ larger-scale religious works.

The precise and sensitive singing is by the Howard Roberts Singers (named after the singer/choral educator, not the jazz guitarist), who were best known for their work with Harry Belafonte. Williams displays an innovative hand at composing vocal harmony, obviously influenced both by the jazz and classical (particularly English) traditions.

 

  1. Track: “Cloudy”
    Album: Nite Life
    Label: Chiaroscuro
    Year: 1970

While a rhythm section can certainly spice up a jazz arrangement, there’s something spectacular about hearing a great pianist play solo. That’s what makes Nite Life (released in some markets as From the Heart) so special: It’s Williams on her own, commanding and expressive.

“Cloudy” was a standard from the 1920s that Williams started playing when she was very young. Her audience never tired of it, so she kept it in her programs her whole career, writing countless arrangements. This poignant solo version may be the best.

 

  1. Track: “Kyrie Eleison”
    Album: Mary Lou’s Mass
    Label: Mary Records
    Year: 1975

The content of Mary Lou’s Mass combines the traditional with the modern. There are the expected Ordinary movements – the texts that are used in every Mass, such as the Gloria, and the Credo. But then there are also new texts set to music, which Williams collaborated on with songwriters like Sonny Henry (who also plays guitar on the album) and Robert Ledogar.

Ledogar wrote English words to translate and expand on the Ancient Greek “Kyrie Eleison” prayer that always opens a Mass celebration. The large personnel list includes the Howard Roberts choir as well as about a dozen instrumentalists and solo singers. The music is an interesting mix of jazz, psychedelic rock, and gospel.

 

  1. Track: “Free Spirits”
    Album: Free Spirits
    Label: Steeplechase
    Year: 1975

No matter what else she tried, Williams always returned to the trio format. At this stage, the lineup included Buster Williams (no relation) on bass and Mickey Roker on drums. Free Spirits is unusual among Mary Lou Williams’ albums for including only one composition by her. There are a couple by sax and flute player John Stubblefield, including the title track.

“Free Spirits” has a distinctively post-bop wandering quality, blanketed in dissonance that is more atmospheric than a source of tension. The three musicians have a riveting and complex conversation.

 

  1. Track: “A Night in Tunisia”
    Album: Live at the Keystone Korner
    Label: HighNote
    Year: 1977/2002

This live recording was made in 1977 at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner jazz club. It wasn’t released until 2002. Williams is joined by Eddie Marshall on drums and Larry Gales on bass.

Dizzy Gillespie composed his masterful tune “A Night in Tunisia” in the early 1940s. It’s been recorded by countless jazz legends, and here Williams offers a version worthy of the work. She knew Gillespie well and appeared in two of his albums. Rather than leaning into the exoticism of the “Tunisia” melody, as many soloists do, Williams seems more focused on integrating the chords into the ensemble experience. The sonic balance (produced by veteran jazz specialist Joe Fields) bears that out.

 

  1. Track: “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”
    Album: My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me
    Label: Pablo
    Year: 1978

This is a stunning record. No drums, just Williams plus bassist Buster Williams, and some vocal tracks with Cynthia Tyson.

The real gem is “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” a song Williams co-wrote in 1938 for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy when she and her husband played with them. The song has since become a standard, but you’re not going to beat this soulful rendition, which turns practically symphonic by the last eight bars.

 

Header image of Mary Lou Williams courtesy of Wikipedia/public domain.

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