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Mary Lou Williams: Mother of Us All

Four decades since her death, the pianist and composer is just beginning to be recognized as a crucial contributor to the history of jazz

Mary Lou Williams in 1938
Mary Lou Williams in 1938 (photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb Collection)

Pianist Sumi Tonooka was just 19 years old when she began taking the train from Philadelphia to Harlem to study with Mary Lou Williams. Those formative lessons took place in the same apartment where, a few decades earlier, the leading lights of bebop—Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Elmo Hope among them—would gather for regular salons where ideas were shared that helped shape the direction of jazz. It was a prerequisite that Williams’ young student be very aware of the ghosts that lingered in that space.

“Mary Lou made sure, especially during my first lesson, that I understood that history before I ever played a note,” Tonooka recalled with a chuckle. “I didn’t touch that piano until she ran down who had been in the room. I was already nervous, and then she told me that this was where Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie used to sit and trade secrets while bebop was being created. Of course I was petrified by the time I sat down to play.”

History was always important to Mary Lou Williams, both her own and that of the music. In 1978 she recorded The History of Jazz for Folkways Records, taking the role of narrator while playing representative pieces for each era: spirituals, Kansas City swing, boogie-woogie, blues, bebop, even the avant-garde. (Albeit with considerable trepidation—the title of her strident composition “A Fungus a Mungus” gives some idea of her feelings for the more outré paths the music was then taking.)

Few artists were so well suited to serve as tour guide for that evolutionary journey. Williams was unique in spanning the music’s history and finding her own voice in each stylistic transformation. Born in 1910 and raised in Pittsburgh, Williams was a prodigy who began playing the piano at age three and was performing before she was 10. After moving to Kansas City she spent most of the ’30s playing, composing, and arranging for bandleader Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy.

She went on to write and arrange for Duke Ellington before landing in Harlem and becoming a mentor and collaborator for the bebop generation. In 1945 she premiered her landmark Zodiac Suite, an ambitious melding of jazz and classical influences, but by the early ’50s she was burnt out and took a three-year sabbatical. During that time she converted to Catholicism and dedicated herself to charitable endeavors. Gillespie eventually convinced her to return to jazz, and she was encouraged by Catholic priest Father Peter O’Brien, who became her manager and later founded the Mary Lou Williams Foundation.

In the 1960s Williams penned a series of sacred works inspired by her faith while performing regularly at the Cookery, a Greenwich Village club. In 1977 she played an infamous duet with Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall, a notoriously tense meeting that did little to change her attitude toward the “New Thing.” By the time of her death in 1981, she couldn’t help but be aware that while those she’d influenced had gone on to earn iconic status, her own contributions had been largely overlooked.

“She had some strikes against her in this country and rose above it all,” says trumpeter Dave Douglas, who paid homage to Williams on his 2000 album Soul on Soul. “It’s such an interesting and quintessentially American story. I don’t think there’s a hierarchy of importance when it comes to the arts, but I’d say that we could be thinking about Mary Lou Williams the same way that we think about Duke Ellington.”

Mary Lou Williams and friends 1947
Left to right: Mary Lou Williams, Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Hank Jones, Tadd Dameron, and Milt Orent in Williams’ New York apartment, August 1947 (photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb Collection)

Forty years after her passing, Williams is still rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Monk, Dizzy, or Duke. Her reputation is slowly growing, however, with a recent spate of revivals and tribute projects. At the 2019 Monterey Jazz Festival, drummer Allison Miller and bassist Derrick Hodge co-led a tribute also titled “Soul on Soul.” Earlier this year pianist Chris Pattishall released his own take on the Zodiac Suite, while pianist Aaron Diehl has been performing a chamber-orchestra arrangement of the suite with ensembles such as the New York Philharmonic. Pianist Frank Carlberg and electronic musician Gabriel Bolaños mused on Williams’ music, life, and voice on their new album Charity and Love.

“We can speculate and make an educated guess as to the reasons why she’s been overlooked,” Carlberg says. “It’s bordering on criminal that she’s been so neglected, and it plays into the broader issues of gender and suppression. It’s clear that the powers within the industry were not paying attention or maybe just didn’t act on what was obviously a tremendous central force in the music. She really is a towering figure in that pantheon of jazz. She was a little older than Monk and all the game-changers of that generation, yet she embraced them without any hesitation and influenced and inspired them. She was someone who really embraced the ancestors while remaining a modern spirit.”

Although Carlberg hints at the issues that are central to Williams’ story and her overshadowing by history, vocalist Carmen Lundy insists that isn’t enough. As the conversation around attitudes toward women in jazz (and society) is finally being broached, Lundy says that Williams needs to be front and center in that discussion.

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s obvious,’ because then no one will ever fess up. The reasons have to be addressed. It’s a blatant dismissal, a clear, conscious way of saying, ‘Oh, well, she’s a lady, so what?’ No, this is this is a time where we have to start to actually mean it, that we are going to stop excluding the contribution of the black female creator. Mary Lou Williams helped pave the dirt road that everybody now rolls down smoothly. There’s a lot of Mary Lou’s contribution that we should hear every time someone drops the needle.”

Lundy had the opportunity to see Williams perform shortly before the pianist’s death, but her deeper relationship with Williams’ music began through her connection with Father O’Brien. He enlisted Lundy to sing Mary Lou’s Mass at Symphony Space in 1983, and then to take the piece into city parochial schools per the composer’s wishes. O’Brien then became Lundy’s manager until his own passing in 2015.

“Mary Lou’s focus was always inherently rooted in the blues,” Lundy says. “It didn’t matter how far-reaching her ideas were or how many genres inside the music that she could own. She could play you a stompdown, nothing-but-the-truth spiritual and move straight into bebop in the space of a deep breath. But she never dismissed the blues. I don’t mean downtrodden songs about how bad things are; I’m talking about the art form itself. She pretty much birthed the sound of jazz piano.”

Lundy, who remains a board member of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, also enjoyed a strong connection with one of the pianist’s most passionate advocates, the late Geri Allen. The two recorded Williams’ “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory” together on Lundy’s 2014 album Soul to Soul and paid tribute at Harlem Stage that same year with the show “A Conversation with Mary Lou.”

In 2010, Allen described the way that Williams’ salons shaped the music and also influenced her own approach to teaching. “At the time when music was transitioning from swing to bebop, Mary Lou Williams was holding these salons in her apartment in Harlem,” Allen said. “The way I perceive it, all of the major shift-makers of that time period were there playing, showing each other their ideas and their tunes. These were the people who were in place to break through into this new, radical music, all together in her home. She was prebop but she was also a radical, so she was inspiring these shifts to take place. I try to encourage that kind of openness [with my students], like a laboratory of scientists all working on this idea for a new breakthrough.”

Williams’ approach to teaching attempted to transfer the inspirational exchange of ideas that she’d enjoyed in her salons and on bandstands to a more formal educational setting. In Tonooka’s experience, that translated into a particularly intimate and focused method of communication.

“One of the ways she would have me learn was to sit literally right next to her while she played,” Tonooka recalled. “You’re connecting with the physicality of what she’s doing; it’s not intellectual, it’s a physical, dynamic experience. That was how she was taught—sitting on her mother’s lap and listening, watching her, being that close. It was powerful because you’re not only observing close at hand, you’re also feeling the intensity. And Mary Lou had a great deal of intensity.”

For the last four years of her life, Williams taught at Duke University as an artist-in-residence, directing the Duke Jazz Ensemble and teaching a jazz history course alongside Father O’Brien. Pianist Bill Cunliffe was a student at the North Carolina institution at the time, and remembers Williams’ approach to teaching as loose and experiential even in this more codified setting.

“Her way of transmitting information was very intuitive,” he described. “It wasn’t academically set up; it was just her telling stories and playing music. It was a lot of hanging out with her and watching her, seeing how she thought about music and hearing great stories about Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Dizzy. I felt like I was really connected to the music in a beautiful way.”

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.