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 1962 and 1963, when Mary Lou Williams Presents Saint Martin de Porres was made, and in 1964 when it was released, Williams made an effort to explore the nature of the music she was creating by writing about it. She distributed a single mimeographed page under the title of “Jazz for the Soul” everywhere she played. Here are some of the things she had to say:

Origin
From suffering came the Negro spirituals, songs of joy, and songs of sorrow. The main origin of American Jazz is the spiritual. Because of the deeply religious background of the American Negro, he was able to mix this strong influence with rhythms that reached deep enough into the inner self to give expression to outcries of sincere joy, which became known as Jazz.

Creative Process of Improvisation
The creative process of improvisation cannot be easily explained. The moment a soloist’s hands touch the instrument, ideas start to flow from the mind, through the heart, and out the fingertips. Or, at least, that is the way it should be. Therefore, if the mind stops, there are no ideas, just mechanical patterns. If the heart doesn’t fulfill its role, there will be very little feeling, or none... at all.

The Spiritual Feeling: The Characteristic of Good Jazz
The spiritual feeling, the deep conversation, and the mental telepathy going on between bass, drums, and a number of soloists, are the permanent characteristics of good jazz. The conversation can be of any type, exciting, soulful, or even humorous debating.

And at the bottom of the page, entirely in capital letters, this:

YOUR ATTENTIVE PARTICIPATION, THRU LISTENING WITH YOUR EARS AND YOUR HEART, WILL ALLOW YOU TO ENJOY FULLY THIS EXCHANGE OF IDEAS, TO SENSE THESE VARIOUS MOODS, AND TO REAP THE FULL THERAPEUTIC REWARDS THAT GOOD MUSIC ALWAYS BRINGS TO A TIRED, DISTURBED SOUL AND ALL “WHO DIG THE SOUNDS.”

Between 1971 and 1978, Williams recorded eight complete albums, including Zoning, another masterpiece for Mary Records (reissued as Smithsonian Folkways 40811), and contributed to three others. In 1977 and 1978, she appeared at Carnegie Hall, first in duets with the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, and second with the swing-era musician Benny Goodman, again giving some idea of her scope and versatility. Both concerts were recorded.

In the fall of that year, Williams entered the final period of her life and career, when she accepted the position of artist-in residence at Duke University, in Durham, North Carolina. It was a deeply fulfilling period for her. She loved the students, and they loved her. She received the Trinity Award, given directly by the vote of the students. Williams battled bladder cancer for the last two years of her life. She never complained, and continued her intense schedule through the fall of 1980. In the final three months of her life, she was bedridden, but continued to compose. Her last work remains incomplete—a composition of 55 winds, piano trio and chamber orchestra called The History of Jazz, a history she largely lived and helped create.

Mary Lou Williams died on May 28, 1981, in Durham. At her funeral, in New York, at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola (where she had been baptized), the musical world gathered. Dizzy Gillespie played, and Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk attended. Excerpts from Mary Lou’s Mass were sung. Her body was taken to Pittsburgh, where another mass was celebrated, with family and friends attending, in the Jesuit church of Saint Peter and Paul. She is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh.

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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