Induction: 2019
Website:  Williams’ Wikipedia Page

Mary Lou Williams

By Linda Dahl

October 12, 2020

In l980, Mary Lou Williams began working on a suite called “History of Jazz for Wind Symphony.” Having mastered the styles of jazz from ragtime in her teens to “free” jazz in the seventies, the “History” was a summation of her life in the music. But not only jazz. She’d studied Hindemith and his contemporaries and – a particular favorite – the soundtracks of horror films. For “Wind Symphony,” she turned to a colleague at Duke University, where she was Artist in Residence, the late opera composer Robert Ward, for help in scoring instruments she was unfamiliar with, such as the English horn and the cello.  Mary was “avid,” said Ward, to compose this suite although she was very ill. Before she passed away in 1981, she managed to complete the introduction and the first section, “Ragtime,” orchestrated for clarinets.  Clarinets she knew:  she’d written Benny Goodman’s hit theme song “Roll ‘Em” in the 1930’s.           

      Mary was always alert to the breadth and depth of African-American music from her childhood prodigy days in Pittsburgh, where she was known as “The Little Piano Girl.”  At 20, with vaudeville training behind her, she coaxed Andy Kirk, leader of The Twelve Clouds of Joy, to teach her to notate the music swirling around in her head.  There followed a decade’s trove of Swing Era compositions for the Clouds, like “Walkin’ and Swingin’” and dozens of arrangements for the great bands, among them her paean to trumpets in “Blue Skies” for Ellington’s band. 

      A solo performer in New York from the 1940’s, Mary dived into the advances of the bop era. Would that there had been a Dean Benedetti recording Mary, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk composing together in her apartment on her beloved Baldwin!  Besides originals like “Tisherome,” “Kool,” “Bobo” and “In the Land of Oo-bla-dee,” her twelve portraits in “The Zodiac Suite” defy easy categorization.  From the 1950’s, she often focused on overtly spiritual compositions after she converted to Catholicism, choral works such as “Black Christ of the Andes” and the first jazz mass approved by the Vatican, “Mary Lou’s Mass.”  At the same time, she delved more deeply into the roots, spirituals and blues, with compositions ranging from the haunting and cool “Nicole” to the searing “Dirge Blues,” written after the assassination of President Kennedy.  Her music, Mary said, whether improvising or composing, was a matter of “praying through my fingertips.”            

Linda Dahl is an award-winning writer; she is the author of the book Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams. Reach out to Linda Dahl at dahljazz@comcast.net.