Duke Ellington called her an artist beyond category. Hank
Jones said she was one of the finest arrangers of any period.
Gary Giddins thought she was one of jazzs greatest pianists.
The person in question is the late Mary Lou Williams, now the subject
of a new documentary produced and directed by Carol Bash for Paradox Films
and PBS. The hour-long film pays tribute to the long-neglected artist
who once dazzled the jazz world with her remarkable accomplishments.
Produced on a limited budget, THE MARY LOU WILLIAMS STORY still manages
to communicate effectively, thanks to some rare footage of Williams in
action and to talking-head interviews with Gary Giddins, Hank Jones, Stanley
Crouch, and the jazz historian Farah Williamson.
The film paints a vivid portrait of Williams, a woman who had to fight
ferociously to find acceptance in the largely male jazz world. She also
had to battle against racial prejudice-and to cope with personal
demons of her own.
Williams, who was born in Atlanta and was raised by an alcoholic mother
and grandmother, began playing piano at three. By the time she was eighteen,
she was married and working in Kansas City in Andy Kirks band (alongside
her musician-husband, John Williams). Kirk disparaged her and left her
when the band was invited to Chicago to cut a record for Decca. Kirk had
to eat crow when Jack Kapp, Deccas a& r man, demanded that she
be included in the session.
Williams took a night train to Chicago. The only other person in her passenger
car was the white conductor, who then proceeded to rape her. This horrific
act traumatized her and was undoubtedly the cause of the numerous mental
problems she suffered later in life. At one time, she was so depressed
that she quit the music business altogether. I shut myself up like
a monk, she said. What ultimately saved me was Catholicism.
I went to church every day for two years and became something of a religious
fanatic. She credits a priest, Father Anthony Woods, with having
given her the spiritual strength to resume playing and composing again.
In her prime Williams was a prolific and prodigious talent. She played
in numerous large and small bands; arranged for Kirk, Duke Ellington,
Benny Goodman, Earl Hines and many others; wrote scores of tunes (Nite
Life, Little Joe from Chicago, Whats Your
Story Morning Glory?). Part of her original Zodiac Suite
was performed in Carnegie Hall by the N.Y. Philharmonic. She also became
a nightclub performer, spent two years in England and Europe, and taught
music at Duke University.
Although stride and boogie-woogie were her thing, she fell in love with
be-bop after WW II and modernized her style and was an influence on such
musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Todd Dameron and Thelonius Monk.
Despite these achievements, Williams felt that fame had eluded her-the
kind of fame that contemporaries like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott enjoyed.
In the Hollywood-influenced jazz world of the 1940s and 50s they had learned
how to sell themselves as entertainers, thanks to their glamor, beauty
and coffee-colored skin. Williams tried to emulate them: she had a nose-job
and dressed more elegantly, but she couldnt do anything about her
dark skin or stage demeanor. When she gave a concert, she refused
to address the audience. No jokes or discoursing; she just sat down at
the piano and began playing, the way a classical performer did.
Im kinda headstrong, she admitted. If that stubborn
thing hits me, youre in trouble.
Mary Lou Williams died in Durham, NC in 1981 at the age of 71. Thanks
to Carol Bashs documentary, her memory burns brightly in the jazz