Smithsonian Institution
Fall 2010: Featuring Mary Lou Williams



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The online, multimedia magazine of Smithsonian Folkways

Mary Lou Williams

Jazz for the Soul

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In 1944, Mary Lou Williams found a champion in Moses Asch, owner and producer of Asch Records. Between 1944 and 1947, she recorded more than fifty sides for his various labels, including Disc and Folkways. In 1944 alone, she recorded six separate times. All the arrangements were her own, as were most of the compositions. The groups included, as sidemen, Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Vic Dickenson, Bill Coleman, Edmond Hall, Frank Newton, and Josh White. In 1946, she recorded a translucent solo piano album, and in 1947, Folkways issued her first bop recordings with Kenny Dorham. In 1945, meanwhile, she had composed The Zodiac Suite, writing harmonically advanced music not formerly associated with jazz. She recorded the suite for Asch Records with piano, bass, and drums.

She soon scored the suite for small chamber orchestra and jazz instruments, and premiered the work at Town Hall in December 31, 1945. The following June, she scored three sections of the suite for seventy pieces and played these with the New York Pops Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Mary Lou Williams was one of the major stride and swing performers who successfully made the transition to bop. For Benny Goodman in 1947, she composed two bop-influenced pieces: “Lonely Moments” and “Whistle Blues.” For Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1949, she composed the bop fairy tale “In the Land of Oo Bla Dee.”

In 1952, she left for Europe for the first time. A nine-day engagement stretched out to two years. She played in England and at length in France, (at the Boeuf sur le Toit and a club named for her, Chez Mary Lou). She recorded for six different companies and toured the continent.

Williams’s own musical development is illustrated in a poster drawn to her specifications and ideas by the artist David Stone Martin. It is in the form of a tree and she called the work The History of Jazz. It boldly shows her deeply held conviction about the origin of the music.

Down into the earth of human experience (African-American human experience), which Williams called SUFFERING, the strong roots descend. From these roots, the tree grows,—thick and straight. Up the middle of the trunk, in ascending order, the eras in the development of jazz are named: spirituals, through ragtime to Kansas City Swing, then bop. The blues are not just another stage, or step, in the evolution of the music, but run up both sides of the tree, originating in the roots. They ascend on the right into the leafy branches, but are severely stopped on the left, where chopped-off branches are seen. On these dead sticks appear such words as “cults and black magic,” “mere exercises,” and “classical books.” On the leaves of the tree are the names of the vital musicians in whose music the blues flourish.

The importance of the blues cannot be overemphasized in Williams’s music. She would often say: “What I’m trying to do is bring back good jazz to you with the healing in it and spiritual feeling” and “The blues was really important—this is your healing and love in the music.” In her teaching and talking about jazz, she never tired of pointing toward “this feeling.” She’d say, “It’s all spiritual music and healing to the soul.” Part of this was in defiance of those who would call jazz “the devil’s music,” and part was in defiance of those who would play music filled with technique but very little feeling.

Langston Hughes called the blues “hymns” to the secular region of man’s soul. Williams went a step further, and called the blues “the spiritual feeling” in jazz. In one deft phrase, she dispensed with any false division in thinking about human life—or about black American music.

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Click images to enlarge and view captions

Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes

recording details

Audio Samples

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes



Miss D. D.

Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes



O.W.

Mary Lou’s Mass



Credo (Instrumental)

Mary Lou’s Mass