A high-water mark in this life was studying with Mary Lou Williams. The echos of that time period continue reverberating in my soul and informing my love of the piano and of music.
After studying as a performance major at Berklee College of Music I moved to New Haven, Connecticut. There I met Nina Vansuch who helped me get a job at Rhymes Records where she worked. We had great fun working together and became fast friends. In 1976 I had read Duke Ellington’s autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. In it he listed many of the musicians he worked with including Mary Lou Williams. At the record store I could order any album I thought was worthy from the Schwann Catalog. As no one else was interested in the jazz section, I applied what I had learned from Duke’s autobio to stock its contents. From this, I was able to order all of Mary Lou Williams albums and became very drawn to her distinctive style and range of compositions.
In early 1979, Nina alerted me to the fact that Mary Lou Williams was soon to play in New York City. On a Sunday afternoon, I went to hear and see her play in the Garden Room Restaurant of Abraham & Strauss (a department store chain). I was the first one in when they opened and recognized Mary Lou sitting at a table in the corner (it wasn’t like a real club where the artist had a private dressing room). I walked over and introduced myself as an avid fan and started to talk with her, telling how I played a little and how she was my favorite pianist. She was 68 years at this point and very alert. As soon as she saw me making my way toward her she focused on me completely and talked with me as if she had always known me. I asked her to sign a few of her albums I’d brought and, most importantly, got her address at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she was a full-time professor and artist-in-residence.
Soon some people came over that were old friends. I slipped away and found a table right behind the piano. She played two sets and the piano was noticeably out of tune. I thought it was real funky that management hadn’t seen fit to tune it properly for her performance. She had an ace bandage on her left wrist and her playing didn’t sound as strong or driving as on her most recent album, My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me, recorded in December 1977. Later I discovered she had perfect pitch and that it was unsettling for her to play a piano not in good tune at concert pitch so I understood better the real reason why her playing sounded less than stellar that day.
Back in New Haven, I was inspired by my exposure to a living legend to continue transcribing recordings, as well as to send a letter to Mary Lou telling her how much I loved seeing her and hearing her play. I also included my transcription of “Rosa Mae”. She sent a very encouraging reply on March 8th and closed with, “wish it possible for you to extract more of my solos”. Being exceedingly excited by this I continued to work on what I had been doing with “Dirge” and the beginning of the title track, “My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me.”
On March 25th matters escalated out of my control when I was fired from the record store for talking too much about the store’s finances. Along with unemployment, I worked under the table at a kinder care place taking care of children. Working with the kids was a relief in many ways and I began to think of going back to California.
This seemed like a good plan until I received a reply in mid-April to a second letter I had written to Mary Lou that included the beginning of her soulful tune “Dirge Blues” (transcription excerpt). In transcribing the opening, I had some questions about the meter and tempo as well as mentioning my idea of moving back to the west coast. Later she told me how she had composed this dirge only a few days before President Kennedy was assassinated during which time she had felt a deep, deep sadness without understanding why. This ability to sense premonitions of events was something she experienced more than once and was an indication of her extremely well-developed intuitive self. Her letter changed the course of my life in profound ways:
Hey! You should really persue (sic) your musical career—There are not many young musicians out here who can hear the way you do – snap! smile – Give up your other ideas about Calif – Try to register here in the fall. The school does get jobs (There’s a special program) When God gives you a talent stick with it. If you attended Berkeley (sic) & other schools – You should drop all schools ’cept to study composition etc. Jazz cannot be taught out of books (even Avant Garde) Lessons with me will be 20.00 per hr (usually 35.00) You are talented & will be throwing your talent away – Don’t be foolish – Write Mr. Frank Tirro (Durham NC) Music Dept – Duke University
P.S. Inquire – before Sept – We had over 750 kids to register for my class – now have 196 – Do so immediately — Williams
Deeply moved by her enthusiasm and encouraging words, I altered my course accordingly to make it to Durham when she returned in the fall from her pending summer-to-be in New York City.
I went back to California for the summer and then flew to the Raleigh/Durham airport on the night of August 31st. Mary Lou had just come home from being in the hospital at Duke Medical Center and I was able to talk with her on the telephone as soon as I got to town. With Mark, a poli-sci senior who had been studying with her, we found a house two blocks from the corner of campus where the music building was. I also got a part-time job 4 hours in the morning on the other side of west campus tending goats, ducks, and deer at an animal facility.
I settled into a weekly schedule soon after that: up the first thing to go to work, back for lunch, and then to the music building for practice (on M, W, F), or for Mary Lou’s class (Tu, Th) and then practicing after class. I had lessons with her every week if she wasn’t too busy with other things. After the first one which was in the evening, she invited me back to the kitchen for some watermelon. We had a wonderful conversation about music and a few of the people in her life. She had known and worked with practically everyone in the jazz world.
Held in a band room, the jazz class was great even though some kids signed up simply because it was supposed to be an easy grade and they would sit up in the back mumbling. I sat in the front row listening to Father Peter O’Brien (a Catholic priest who was her manager) talk about music and play a lot of records illustrating what he was saying for the first half of class. Then Mary Lou would come in and sit at the piano, playing and teaching us to sing a number of her songs. She said the only way to learn about music was to have it come from inside and to sing it out. I loved to listen to her playing as well as singing. It was a supreme blessing to drink in the rich, pure vibrations and feelings of her music in this manner—live, four feet away from where her fingers were dancing over the keys—twice a week, plus receiving the one-to-one moments during her piano lessons.
Soon after I arrived I was at her house one evening. After we had worked a little on the piano, she brought out a copy of her recently released Solo Recital 1978 Montreux album and we listened to some of the songs. When we got to “Honeysuckle Rose” she expressed displeasure with the way she played it saying she felt it was too fast and should have been played more slowly. I was struck by this instance of her exacting self-standards, of what she did and didn’t like in her performance.
She would close her eyes much of the time while playing. At one point when we were talking at her house she remarked, “When I close my eyes, I’m gone.” One of many staggering-to-me aspects of her playing was that she never looked at her hands. And oh how intimately they flew with deft precision over the 88 keys! It was clear that long ago, she had physically become one with the instrument, and that there was not one iota of energy being siphoned off from her creative expression by any issues of technical or physical prowess.
Mary Lou’s style is steeped thru-and-thru with a fundamental blues feeling as well as a powerful percussive element. Laid on top of this is a gift for improvisational expression unique in the manner she arranged and, especially, composed music. She created complete, fully-developed songs while playing. As she described it in 1978: “Whenever I was asked to play piano for someone I would compose new music while playing. Not realizing I was being recorded while I was playing the piano I composed ... Night Life [on April 24, 1930]. And it happens to be my first recording.” The range of style and mood traversed in her compositions was extraordinarily diverse and rich in its texture, depth, and feeling.
I was so inspired by this giant of jazz that I began to pick out two complete songs from My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me: “No Title Blues” and “J.B.’s Waltz”. I loved both of these since first hearing them. But up to that point, I hadn’t felt the determination to take as long as necessary to write them out. Notating music from a recording requires stamina, patience, and concentration. In Durham, I discovered I could engage these energies to a new level and degree thanks to the gift of studying with Mary Lou. Learning them afterward was a great joy since the structure of the recording was now mapped out as a written score. By October I was practicing a minimum of 4 hours a day. In November this increased to 5 hours. I had never played that much previously and it felt revelatory.
The time spent with Mary Lou throughout the fall was the radiant center of my world. She lived in a two-story house and had two pianos: a new Yamaha grand in the living room which someone had given her, and a spinet across the front hall in a smaller room which is where we had lessons. We did practically everything on the spinet; I hardly ever saw her play the Yamaha. Mary Lou would tend to be somewhat short-tempered at times during the lessons. As Nina (then living in Boston) said at one point, “I doubt Mary Lou would get so riled up if she didn’t think you had the potential and were capable of going further.”
I repeatedly did get the message that she felt I had the goods. Inviting me to come study with her was a crystal clear message as well as the time and attention—and at times exasperation she gave vent to—during my lessons. At times she made collard greens and hush puppies and we’d eat at her breakfast table while she would hold forth as a living encyclopedia describing the people who had created the musical idiom called “jazz”. As Duke Ellington more accurately put it in Music is My Mistress:
You probably heard of the word ‘jazz.’ It’s all right if that is the way you understand or prefer it. We stopped using the word in 1943, and we much prefer to call it the American Idiom, or the Music of Freedom of Expression. (p. 309)
I looked for ways I could increase the time being with Mary Lou. The most successful avenue was that I began to clean her house and thus could spend a long period of a given day with her there. During these extended periods, her moods would shift and I could better appreciate and understand her tendency to lose her temper with me. She had been thru and endured so much as a black woman in an essentially black man’s field, but it never deterred her from giving herself to her music and all those she played with and loved so deeply.
Her marvelous 1978 recording on Folkways Records, The History Of Jazz, made in her New York City apartment by herself at the piano with her Tandberg tape recorder, included a rich conversation she conducted with you-the-listener about this music and its rich, unique heritage. At the end, she obliquely referred to her personal travails with the words:
It was my pleasure to bring you thru the history of Jazz. You may not realize this but you’re lucky. On the other hand, to bring this history to you I had to go thru muck and mud.
Born Mary Elfrieda Winn in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910, Mary Lou had grown up in Pittsburgh after her family moved there when she was 5 or 6 and was exposed to all kinds of music. Known around town as “the little piano girl”, Mary Lou was often heard at private parties including those of the Mellons and the Olivers, well before she was ten years old. She married twice, first to alto saxophonist John Williams and later to trumpeter Harold (Shorty) Baker. “Yet she says of both husbands and all other encounters, ‘I didn’t marry men. I married horns. After about two weeks of marriage, I was ready to get up and write some music. I was in love with Ben Webster longer than anybody, and that was about a month!’” (Ebony, Oct. 1979, p.60)
It was apparent to me that although she never had children herself, she bore something of equal mystery and limitlessness through her music. As with mothers who have children, hers manifested and contained the depth and richness of an extremely unique consciousness and spirit in an extraordinarily unique form and expression.
Mary Lou was very big on teaching people what she referred to as “The History” beginning with spirituals, then work songs, ragtime, old-fashioned slow blues or ballad, fast blues, boogie-woogie, the swing era (particularly Kansas City swing), bop (the Dizzy Gillespie era), modern, and avante-garde. She was unique in the history of the Music of Freedom of Expression as she was trained to play all styles beginning as a child prodigy at age three on her Mother’s lap. She lived thru all the eras and was an unrivaled composer, arranger, and innovator, as well as a top, bar none, pianist and performer.
Like Duke, she knew and worked with all the greats, and was part of all the eras of this unique American Idiom form of music. Again, taking a page from Music is My Mistress:
Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead throughout her career. She did one of our most important arrangements on Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” which we recorded as “Trumpet No End,” and it has always been one of our standard high spots. Much of her time is now devoted to work in the religious field, but her music retains—and maintains—a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul. (p.169)
Reading the above for the first time in 1976, the sense of her specialness had always stayed with me, waiting for the time when fate presented the chance to study with her as I was now doing.
Up to the beginning of December, things had gone exceedingly well. But I switched jobs to a graveyard shift as a radio operator at the Duke Public Safety Office Friday and Saturday nights and, although this provided enough money, I had never worked in that time period before and it messed up my waking hours. Then school let out for Christmas vacation and the town became very empty. I went to visit a good friend of the family in Indianapolis for five days. When I returned, I found that Mary Lou was back in the hospital where tests were being done because she needed surgery. I visited her a fair amount in her hospital room and we had some long talks. But she was relatively inaccessible and I was at a loss as to how to regain my musical momentum.
I did not have the drive I felt all the people I idolized lived their whole lives expressing. With Mary Lou engaged in attending to her own physical needs, I found myself lost and couldn’t re-ignite my motivation to proceed with my practicing. After her operation, Mary Lou was slowly convalescing in the hospital (and would stay there until the middle of March) so there was no music class and very limited musical time with her.
Sometime in the second week of February, I slipped on an icy sidewalk slapping both my hands down hard on the ground. The next day at the student health center I learned I had fractured the fourth metacarpal in my right hand’s palm and wore a cast on that hand and lower arm for the next four-and-a-half weeks.
I never regained the concerted practice schedule I had reached in the fall. Mary Lou went home later and made it back to her class at the end of March. I had a few more lessons with her then and at the beginning of April before she left town to play in Brazil for a few days. I thought she would be back a week-and-a-half later after she had spent some time in New York City. It was the last time I saw her. I struggled thru April with a job as a laborer for a small contractor but he had to let me go at month’s end.
At my wits and money’s end—I had been expecting Mary Lou’s return for about 3 weeks and had no word of where she was—I boarded a bus back to California to seek a construction job my brother told me was pending.
Despite the winding down for the last four months of my time in Durham, I have always felt exceedingly grateful and blessed by the gifts imparted during this period with Mary Lou Williams. Duke understood her being like “soul on soul” as well as his apprehension that she had a truly timeless standard of quality in her playing. For those not familiar with her music, I cannot strongly enough recommend exploring her recordings.
An echo of this high-water mark on the journey is an article from the 7 December 1979 issue of Books & Arts with its cover story being “Mary Lou Williams: love in jazz”, which had, as its one accompanying photo, an image of me watching her showing “how it’s supposed to go”.
A group of us had stayed after class that day and the photographer for this feature was there snapping away. If I remember correctly, she suggested I play something so I started in with the version I was transcribing of “Roll ’Em” from Live at the Cookery. I wasn’t thru the 8-bar intro before she came over saying something like, “That’s not right. Let me show you how it’s supposed to go.” As the photo was imaged I was transfixed seeing an instance of the “mystery revealed” with every note she was playing, while at the same time desperately trying to commit the mechanics of the aural sequence to photographic memory—something I am not good at. I can take a recording of some piano and make a reasonable stab at scoring it out, but simply seeing someone play something right there live in the moment and then recounting it to myself afterward was another matter.
The issue came out in December. Before I saw the edition, I was in the music building one day before or after class when Mary Lou came up huffing about how I was always pushing my way into everything. I was mystified but later, upon seeing the article, I realized she had felt taken advantage of. From this, I gained another insight into how challenging her and other musicians’ professional existence must be and the toll it can take in terms of wearing down one’s inclination to trust others and trust that the universe will provide for and take care of all our needs.
Throughout my entire time in Durham, I felt the strangest mystery of all was why there were no others like myself who had found their way there via whatever route, to likewise study with such a true, living legend as Mary Lou Williams. It always has bewildered me that out of everyone on Earth at that time, no one else had discovered their own path to her door nor was now exploring pursuing a musical path with the guidance of such a stellar member of the group of people present during and participating in so much of the creation of the Music of Freedom of Expression.
Mary Lou returned close to the end of May and wrote me. We shared more correspondence thru that fall. Back in March, I was visiting her while she was convalescing in the hospital after I’d gotten the cast off my right hand and could play again. A piano had been rolled into her room and I played the version of “No Title Blues” I had transcribed and worked up. She was very pleased, telling someone else there, “Look, he’s done the ‘No-Name Blues’!” She wrote me saying I would make a great music manuscript copyist (transcribing whatever from recordings) and I have kept going with that, although not for my livelihood which she indicated I could make a reasonable income from.
The last letter I received from her was dated September 4, 1980. In it she wrote: “Practice & do a great piano—your timing is better. I’ll always tell you what’s good or bad, Only way to teach it.”
Mary Lou died next May from cancer just after her seventy-first birthday. She had been fighting it while I was there and stayed incredibly engaged right up to the end, playing, teaching, sharing, and loving. I don’t know what would have happened if she had returned before I left in May of 1980. It’s more than possible I would have stayed in Durham studying with her. She was a unique teacher for me in so many facets of life and living. I was blessed beyond compare to have had the chance to know Mary Lou and drink at the fountain of life with her. Some aspect of her will always live on inside. This chapter of my life has bestowed a purpose to emphasize and ignite the awareness of and love for the music she created and thru which she expressed her own inimitable experience of being.
After more than two decades of traveling different paths, Nina and I were married in 2006. Her alerting me in 1979 to Mary Lou Williams playing in New York City was one of so many loving gifts I have been graced with by her in our life together.