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Chronology: Mary Lou Williams and the Spirits of ’76

A late-period masterpiece from a revolutionary pianist

Mary Lou Williams 1975
Mary Lou Williams at home in New York City, 1975 (photo (c) Ole Brask, Jan Persson Archive/CTSIMAGES)

Nobody embodied the jazz tradition quite like Mary Lou Williams. She was born in 1910 and helped define stride piano, big-band, and boogie-woogie when those genres were at their peak. When modernism came in, she befriended Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. As early as the 1950s, she programmed concerts and recordings that sought to celebrate different historical styles from ragtime to bebop; in the ’60s she was quick to accept funk beats as well as the harmonic innovations of Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock.

On her 1976 album Free Spirits, Williams plays with a Hancock rhythm section. Buster Williams had been in the epochal Mwandishi sextet and Mickey Roker had powered Hancock’s famous Speak Like a Child. Both the bassist and the drummer had been working frequently with Williams in New York piano rooms. Roker told me he played with Williams at the Hickory House for seven months straight, and Buster Williams says he joined the trio there after Bob Cranshaw had gotten too busy taping the music to Sesame Street.

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Originally Published
Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson

Ethan Iverson has been writing about jazz for 15 years, mostly on his blog Do the Math. While he was the founding pianist of the Bad Plus, these days Iverson performs in a duo with Mark Turner and in Billy Hart’s quartet, has a longstanding relationship with Mark Morris, and teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music.