Modern Mary

Mary Lou Williams’ 1930 “Night Life,” not to be confused with the fascinating 1971 variation, “Nite Life,” is one of those vital shadow classics that get lost in the indiscriminate reissue parade. It’s worth discovering. Williams had recorded intermittently for three years (mostly as Mary Leo Burley), though never as a leader, when Brunswick’s Jack Kapp summoned her to Chicago. He had already signed the Andy Kirk Orchestra, from Kansas City, but the band had refused to bring her along. An irate Kapp-insisting, according to Williams, that the band “didn’t sound the same”-refused to record them without her. She arrived at the studio in April, after a hellish journey, having been raped on the train. As the band was unprepared, Kapp asked her for a couple of piano numbers. Williams would later tell the Smithsonian Institute’s Jazz Oral History Project that she thought she was auditioning when she waxed “Night Life” and “Drag ‘Em.” They were released as her first recordings, and she was never paid an advance or royalties-a different sort of rape.

Yet the performances are luminous, largely composed on the spot. “I have always done my best composing while playing,” she said of that session. “I was almost scared to death, but got going, remembering the night life of K.C.” She sounds neither frightened nor in pain, though she probably was, according to research by biographer Linda Dahl; the incident on the train followed by days a similarly violent encounter in Kansas City. “Night Life” springs forward with a rush, and makes its way with a feverish tenacity. Interweaving tricky cross-rhythms, hesitations, tremolos and a stomp, Williams never falters; each episode divulges contrast and surprise. For a stride-out-of-ragtime invention, replete with Tin Pan Alley condiments, “Night Life” exhibits little in the way of repetition. Williams had already soaked up so much piano music that elements of Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Earl Hines commingle in the development of a new, obstinately self-sufficient personality.

Williams begins “Night Life” with an oddly splayed four-bar introduction, as if she can’t wait to get going. The theme is a 32-bar AABA song, played with a rigorous stride rhythm, the last half of the A sections insinuating the rhythmic-melodic pattern of the 1928 Fields and McHugh song, “Diga Diga Doo.” Other allusions are also suggested in this chorus: Spencer Williams’ “I’ve Found a New Baby” in bar nine, instantly followed by a vivid melodic turn that never reappears; a touch of Grieg in bar five of the release, and-marvel of marvels-John Coltrane’s 1959 “Mr. P. C.” in the closing bars. The second chorus is entirely different, with a strong walking bass, mixed rhythms and perilous pauses, all firmly on track, as is the gliss-impelled third chorus, in which she shifts from one idea to another, a hellhound on her trail. She changes direction in chorus four with a descending eight-to-the-bar bass walk, reminiscent of Eubie Blake’s “Charleston Rag” (recorded in 1921 as “Sounds of Africa”) before turning up the stride. In the fifth and final chorus, Williams extends the first A-section to 10 bars and adds an eight-bar coda, rarely hinting at the initial thematic material. She covers a lot of ground in 2:56.

I confess that I had never thought about “Night Life” until I heard Eric Lewis play it at the May 14 Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s tribute, “The Music of Mary Lou Williams,” at Alice Tully Hall. The great thing about jazz repertory is that it encourages you to hear afresh or for the first time works lost in the sands of jazz time. From Lewis’ first splashing chords through several intricate turnabouts, I thought, “Did she really play that in 1930, because it sounds awfully modern?” She did, and it does, and I hope that Lewis gets to record his gleaming interpretation. It was disconcerting to discover later that evening that the record isn’t available domestically; the only edition I could find online was the French Classics import Mary Lou Williams 1927-1940.

Williams has been the subject of many tributes, including one by the American Jazz Orchestra, in 1990, with which I was involved, and Dave Douglas’ 2000 CD, Soul on Soul, but the LCJO transcended them all in treating Williams whole and in depth, taking her from Kansas City (“Mess-a-Stomp”) through the swing era, modern jazz and her sacred concerts. Under Wynton Marsalis, the band has attained a plateau beyond polish. By the third or fourth number, it locked down a vivacious unity that meshed commitment and pleasure, something you don’t pay or pray for-it is achieved only over time.

Among the guests, it was most gratifying to hear Williams’ longtime bassist, Carline Ray, now at 79 a singer with a deep, declarative alto. Among regulars, Eric Lewis pulled the most weight, but no less impressive were drummer Herlin Riley, sharpening every corner, and baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley, playing light-fingered tenor. The band’s prize possession, however, is its princely trumpet section: Marcus Printup per-fecting a serene, silver-plated sound that reminded me of Kenny Dorham; Ryan Kisor making every break a Roman candle; Seneca Black nailing the high notes; and the leader declaiming with pithy directness.

The band gave Mary Lou Williams her due; imagine how it would sound if it workshopped the music on tour for a year.