MARY LOU WILLIAMS is a lady with a mission—to bring jazz back to the young. In recent years, that quest has brought the 69-year-old pianist and composer to Duke University in Durham, N. C., where she teaches and serves as artist-in-residence. But the story really begins in Atlanta, Ga., when she was about 3.
“My mother used to hold me on her lap while she practiced on an old-fashioned pump organ,” Miss Williams recalls in the liner notes to “My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me,” one of her many albums. “One day, my hands beat hers to the keyboard and I picked out a melody. It must have been pretty good, because she dropped me and went to get the neighbors to come and listen.”
Reminded of that incident during a recent interview, Miss Williams laughs. “She used to tell me that, after that day, I never left the piano.”
The Williams family moved to Pittsburgh when Mary Lou was about 5, and her reputation as a child prodigy quickly spread. “Earl Hines’s musicians used to come pick me up when I was in grade school,” she says, “and I’d go out and jam with them.” Pretty soon she was known around town as “the Little Piano Girl,” and she was in demand at such diverse spots as the homes of the well-heeled Mellon family and the after-hours gambling joints her stepfather used to sneak her into (she hid under his oversize topcoat).
Thus began a career that has spanned all of the major eras of jazz. “I’m the only living artist who has changed her style with each period,” Miss Williams says. “I was there when it began. My mother taught me spirituals and ragtime. Then in the early 20’s I was jamming with professional musicians; I went to New York and played with Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians in the pit of the Lincoln Theater when I was 13 or 14. I was in Kansas City and met Lester Young and Thelonious Monk. And in the bop era, the musicians used to come to my apartment every night—Sarah Vaughan and all of them—and write music.”
She hands me a copy of a drawing she uses to illustrate to her students the four major eras of jazz as she sees them. The drawing depicts a sturdy tree in full leaf its roots grow out of the suffering of slaves that produced the first spirituals. The trunk rises through three more eras: ragtime, Kansas City swing, and bop. The leaves are labeled with the names of the jazz greats who come up often in Miss Williams’s conversation: Ellington, Fats Waller, J.P. Johnson, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and other artists.
Miss Williams’s tree has one dead limb, however; it shoots off to the left and looks bare and sad. It represents the forces she believes have endangered and weakened jazz: avant-garde music, cult music, books that teach performance technique, and one force that has a bare branch all to itself—commercial rock.
“We almost lost a great American art,” Miss Williams says. “After the bop era it just all went to pot; musicians started playing commercial rock and what they call ‘free music,’ and all the feeling went out of it. If a creative musician listens only to music like that, he can’t ever get off the ground. You have to hear great music in order to go and create something new.”
At Duke, Mary Lou Williams tries to teach the feeling. She does it by going back to the beginnings of jazz, to spirituals and gospel and the blues. One of her most important teaching methods is to have her students sing the music they’re hearing.
“I have them sing all the eras of jazz. When we get to the bop era they sing, ‘shoo-be-doo-be-doo.’ My current students are doing quite well at getting the feeling. It has to go in the ears and saturate the entire mind before they’re ready to move on to the next era. Last semester, I gave the kids a blues to sing, but it sounded cold. So we moved backward and did all the spirituals again. After that, they had a better feeling.”
Miss Williams decides to demonstrate what she means. Pushing back her cup of tea, she leans away from the table and, drumming with her fingers for rhythm, hums various versions of melodies. “It’s in how you attack the notes,” she explains, and sings the phrase, “I cover the waterfront.” Her voice has the elastic quality of improvisation, lingering over a note here, letting it slip away there. She’s enjoying herself, smiling and swaying, as she illustrates the differences between swing phrasing and bop phrasing.
“Pianists can have technique, but that’s not enough,” she remarks after her demonstration. “We’re living in a technical society, and people think that if they go to school and learn it, they’ll be able to play it right. Sure, you can play like a typewriter, but it’ll make your audience nervous to listen to it. It’s nothing that’s written down in a book, you know.”
Ebony magazine recently described Mary Lou Williams’s own
playing as being based on “a rare mental energy that has impelled
her to absorb the changes of each period into her style, which is
variously reminiscent of Fats Waller, Earl Hines, and Art Tatum,
as well as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Bold chords and
fluidly unwinding melodic lines are set forth in a framework that
meshes familiar blues and boogie figures with brilliant flashes
of modern dissonance.”
ALTHOUGH ALMOST ALL of Miss Williams s musical training was informal, she learned a great deal from working with some of the major figures of jazz. In 1929 she joined the Andy Kirk Orchestra and settled in Kansas City. Photographs from that period show a smiling, very young musician, the only female face in the Twelve Clouds of Joy.
“No one expected a woman to be sitting on a stand with 12 or 18 men,” she says with a hearty laugh. “When I was with the Andy Kirk band, no one said anything against it, though, because they went wild when I began to play. At the time I had started playing with a strong left hand, like Fats Waller, and that was considered amazing for a woman to do.
“In St. Louis once, 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.”
Being a female in the male-dominated world of jazz has never caused Mary Lou Williams much difficulty. She doesn’t believe it should intimidate other female musicians, either. “I think that if a woman has something to do, she should do it. I’m sure she’d get a great deal of help from the males. That’s what happened to me. And it wasn’t luck. I knew just what I was doing, because I got those male musicians to train me.”
She says Andy Kirk was a particularly good teacher. “I would have ideas for new songs, and he would write them down for me. I watched him, and in no time at all I began writing. He taught me the names of my chords, and I learned them in about 15 minutes.”
“Many of the giants taught themselves music, you know. People like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane were playing before they ever studied. You just have to play it first. Jazz doesn’t come out of school, even though there’s a lot of technique in the music.”
Miss Williams stayed with Kirk’s band throughout the period of Kansas City swing, continuing to perfect her own technique. She also played in many of the renowned Kansas City jam sessions of the period, improvising with people like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Charlie Parker. Then, in 1942, she moved on to New York City. It was a good time to be in New York; an ex-shoe salesman named Barney Josephson had just opened the city’s first integrated jazz club, Cafe Society, with singer Billie Holiday as its first featured performer. Before long, Mary Lou Williams was ensconced as a regular at Cafe Society Downtown (the club’s huge success prompted Josephson to open a second club uptown, where pianist Hazel Scott was featured). Almost anybody who knew jazz in those days remembers hearing Miss Williams play there, or at the other jumping joints of the war years. She also played on radio; arranged for Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong’s bands; and even wrote music for the New York Philharmonic. When the bop era came along, Mary Lou Williams moved with it. Then, in 1952, she went to Europe, winning rave reviews in London and Paris clubs.
But the frenetic years were taking their toll. In Paris, Mary Lou Williams suddenly walked away from her career. She returned to New York, stopped playing, and disappeared from the musical scene. In our conversation, she passes over this period of her life quickly, saying only: “I was going in all kinds of directions. New York, you know, is pretty rough, and it’ll throw you off balance—but a great priest, Father Anthony Woods, helped straighten me out.”
Miss Williams converted to Catholicism in 1957 and spent a considerable amount of time in the years immediately thereafter working to raise money for the poor and for musicians who had fallen on hard times. But Father Woods helped persuade her to go back to her music. “After my conversion,” she says, “I became stronger musically.”
MISS WILLIAMS’S CONVERSION gave her a new source of subject matter for her music. She began to turn to religious themes, although she continued to play secular music, as well. In 1964, she wrote a piece called “St. Martin de Porres: Black Christ of the Andes,” and it drew an enthusiastic notice in Time magazine. Peter O’Brien, a young Catholic seminarian, saw the notice and decided to attend Miss Williams’s performance of the work at her first major New York concert since the late 1950’s. After that, he caught her act whenever he could, and the two became close friends. Their mutual interest in music, the Catbolic faith, and teaching led them to collaborate, and—after his ordination as a Jesuit priest—Father O’Brien became Miss Williams’s manager, a position he still holds. He is also her teaching colleague at Duke, and seems to be a veritable encyclopedia on both jazz and the history of Miss Williams’s work.
One of her best-known compositions of the last 10 years has been “Mary Lou’s Mass.” Written in 1969 and 1970, the original version was commissioned by the Vatican and was called “Music for Peace.” In 1971, Alvin Ailey choreographed a dance to a revised version of the work. In 1975 more than 3,000 persons attended a performance of “Mary Lou’s Mass” in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral; it was the first jazz Mass ever celebrated there.
“The Mass,” which Miss Williams still performs frequently, seems particularly expressive of its composer’s desire to teach people to hear and feel jazz. The liturgical version of the work can be sung by a large congregation, making it accessible to people who are not familiar with much jazz music. It is scored simply for a bassist and a pianist. “In performing it,” Father O’ Brien explains, “we carry no professional musicians with us, except Mary Lou and the bassist. So whatever we find, in a church, a college, a community audience, is what we work with. Mary Lou immediately rewrites the sung parts to fit the abilities of the people who will participate.”
Her relish for getting people involved in the music extends to the secular, as well. Miss Williams tells of a time back in 1946 when she was performing a new jazz piece, “Zodiac Suite,” at a series of concerts with the New York Philharmonic—one of the first times that a jazz musician had worked with a symphony orchestra. The day before the final performance, she decided to write a straight-out boogie-woogie for the musicians to play at the next afternoon’s rehearsal. “At first, I was afraid to pass out the parts I had written,” she remembers. “But the conductor was called away to the phone, and I said to the musicians, ‘Do this for me.’ And we were into it when he came back to the rehearsal hall. I had 36 violins standing up, playing something like Charlie Parker would play. The conductor didn’t know what to make of it, but it was really fun. The musicians loved it. Afterward, I would see some of them on the subway or someplace, and they’d say, ‘Mary, when are you going to write something else for us?’ ”
Audiences can still hear Mary Lou Williams perform in concert halls and clubs around the country—but only during college vacations. Since 1977, when she joined the Duke faculty, most of her time has been devoted to teaching her course there, and to giving lectures and conducting workshops and choir-training sessions at other colleges and universities. When we met, she was en route to two such engagements after a stop in Washington to meet Pope John Paul II at the White House.
One of Miss Williams’s reasons for preferring a campus setting is her intense desire to create an educated audience for jazz—to allow as many young people as possible, perhaps including some future jazz greats, to find out what the music’s lineage is all about. She is particularly excited when she believes she has had an impact on the young. One such time was in 1970, after she went to Barney Josephson, the man who had run the Cafe Society clubs some 20 years before, and persuaded him to book her into his Greenwich Village restaurant, The Cookery. “He decided to put in a piano, and he put me to playing, and in a little while we had kids coming from all over New York. They were going home and telling their parents that they’d discovered a new kind of music, and a new pianist,” she laughs. “They didn’t start coming overnight, but one evening we arrived, and there they were, lining up to get in.”
“What’s missing for kids today,” she says, “is that they no longer have heroes—like Babe Ruth. How can anyone advance without listening to someone older? Not to someone who’s always telling them, ‘Do this, do that,’ and straining them, but to someone they want to pay attention to. It doesn’t mean that they’ll ever be able to hit a ball like Babe Ruth, but they’ll still be way ahead in what they set out to accomplish. You’ve got to look to somebody to be great.”
“My students,” she is quick to add, “are great kids. They’re looking for love, and that’s what’s in the music I’m teaching. Jazz has healing in it, and a lot of love.”