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Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams by Linda Dahl

Linda Dahl, author of the 1984 book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz women, has written a long-overdue first full-length biography of Mary Lou Williams, a pianist-composer who overcame a background of poverty and neglect to become one of the most influential women in jazz. Although an annual Kennedy Center festival was named for her in 1995, Williams remains one of the least known musicians, despite a 50-year career that transverses all eras of jazz and her influences upon John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Hilton Ruiz and other jazz players.

Dahl was the first person given complete access to the Williams archives: photos, telegrams, letters, notebooks, music manuscripts and a series of scrapbooks and journals documenting Williams’ activities from the 1920s in New York. Dahl interviewed family members, friends, musicians and pivotal people such as Father Peter F. O’Brien, S.J., who met Williams in 1964 and became her personal manager until her death from bladder cancer on May 28, 1981 in Durham, N.C.

Because of Dahl’s dedication, this is a compelling biography that can’t be set down. Without sugar coating facts to cast Williams in a better light, Dahl reveals details of Williams’s failed marriages, unrealistic love affairs, drug use, angry outbursts and other personal failures and flaws, as well as myriad personal triumphs and musical achievements.

Dahl’s organized, accessible writing makes Williams’ spirit come alive. With respect and admiration, Dahl traces Williams’ life, from birth to an alcoholic mother in Atlanta in 1910, to her tenure with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, her first marriage to saxophonist John Overton Williams and through each jazz era until her final days in Durham, where she bought a house after she began teaching in 1977 at nearby Duke University.

An impoverished African-American woman whose musical gifts were apparent early, Williams struggled through physically abusive relationships with men, her own obsessiveness and unending obstacles in her path. For decades, even through periods when she was broke, Williams tried to regain rightful royalties to music she’d written. She was a proud, highly intelligent woman who persevered and never left the music she loved so much.

Dahl corrects the myth that Williams stopped playing for a long time in the late 1950s. In fact, after returning home dispirited from a mid-’50s European trip, Williams shunned nightclub gigs she hated, but played piano at home and in a church basement. She had been a famous swing era pianist and during the 1940s was a soloist at New York’s Café Society. After converting to Catholicism, Williams turned her apartment into a shelter for downtrodden musicians and began to immerse herself in newfound spirituality, revitalizing her career to become famous for her spiritual music, including “Mary Lou’s Mass,” a jazz mass twice celebrated in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Dahl’s rough periods while writing the book diminished after three vivid dreams in which Williams led her up a flight of stairs in a house to a room where she played piano for the author. That Dahl connected so completely with her subject is precisely what makes the book so enjoyable. Rare photographs, lists of sources and notes, bibliography, selective discography and useful index add allure for scholars.

Originally Published