The Mary Lou Williams Story

Review by Willard Manus

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 jazz’s 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 Kirk’s band (alongside her musician-husband, John Williams). Kirk disparaged her and left her behind
when the band was invited to Chicago to cut a record for Decca. Kirk had to eat crow when Jack Kapp, Decca’s 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,” “What’s 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 couldn’t 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.

“I’m kinda headstrong,” she admitted. “If that stubborn thing hits me, you’re in trouble.”

Mary Lou Williams died in Durham, NC in 1981 at the age of 71. Thanks to Carol Bash’s documentary, her memory burns brightly in the jazz firmament again.