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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 at Café Society, New York, June 1947
Mary Lou Williams at Café Society, New York, June 1947                                                                (photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb Collection)

Despite the fact that her career spanned so many styles and eras, the conflict between tradition and innovation that’s ever-present in jazz was not absent from Williams’ perspective. Perhaps her unhappy experience with Cecil Taylor was still fresh in her mind when she recorded this cautionary narration to conclude The History of Jazz:

“After the bop era, it seems that the creation and the heritage was a little bit lost,” she warned. “If it continues in this direction, we’ll never have another great Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and many, many other great names. Now we come to a period in the music wherein the disturbance and the unrest of the world has crept in to destroy the roots and heritage.”

Tonooka was present that night at Carnegie Hall, and feels that the relationship between Williams and Taylor was more complicated than is often portrayed. “There was tension, but it was kind of fascinating,” she said. “It didn’t happen out of tension; it happened, I think, because Cecil really loved her. And I don’t think Mary Lou would have done it unless she felt like it was something she wanted to do—she definitely was someone who wasn’t going to do anything she didn’t want to do. She could be very intimidating. She had some anger, I think, too, in terms of feeling like she could be more respected for who she actually was. But she told me at my first lesson that you had to go through the muck and the mud in order to play the blues.”

Allison Miller also finds a direct link between Williams’ roots and her more far-reaching adventurousness. The drummer was introduced to Williams’ music via her 1974 release Zoning, which mostly featured her trio with Bob Cranshaw and Mickey Roker. Miller recorded Williams’ “Intermission” on her 2010 album Boom Tic Boom, hailing the pianist as “a huge idol of mine.”

“It was particularly this mix of tradition and avant-garde that I loved,” Miller explained. “And it was avant-garde in the truest sense, because it felt so cutting-edge yet it was still so rooted in the blues and jazz tradition. She was unflinching in her creative agency. Oftentimes she wrote things that people did not understand or that was too complicated to perform, but she just was like, ‘I have to do this.’ I’ve always been inspired by that.”

Regardless of Williams’ avowed hostility toward the avant-garde, Douglas felt he was very much in keeping with her spirit when he approached her music from his own singular perspective on Soul on Soul, which featured cutting-edge players like Uri Caine, Chris Speed, Josh Roseman, and Joey Baron.

“You can’t lose sight of the progressive aspect of her music,” the trumpeter said. “I would never want to go back and play her old pieces the way she played them. I feel like learning from the spirit of her progressivism and optimism and forward-looking demeanor—that’s the true light and spirit of Mary Lou Williams that stands as a model for us all.”

Lundy has a different attitude toward the performance of Williams’ music, one that echoes the pianist’s own statements about the potential loss of connection to the roots of jazz. “When you play Mary Lou’s music, respect it as you would Bach or Beethoven,” Lundy said. “Now, you can create variables based on what she intended. But respect her offering for what it is, not updating and hip-ifying it. If you just [recognize] what’s already there and play that, you’ll see how hip it is. There are lessons in the way she constructs her ideas; if you just let them come up under your fingers, then you walk away with an understanding of ways to get your ideas across. If we deconstruct and dismiss all the individual and collective ideas that brought us here, it’s not good for where the music will be 50 years from now.”

Mary Lou Williams playing cards at home with Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie, 1947
Mary Lou Williams playing cards at home with Tadd Dameron (left) and Dizzy Gillespie, 1947
(photo: Library of Congress/William P. Gottlieb Collection)

Aaron Diehl also tapped into Williams’ oeuvre through the efforts of Father O’Brien. The connection came via two intersecting paths: a sermon that the priest gave during the mid-2000s at St. Joseph of the Holy Family church in Harlem, where Diehl was playing on Sundays, and a performance of Williams’ music by the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra while Diehl was a student. Father O’Brien then asked Diehl for a performance of the Mass for the Lenten Season, establishing a relationship that has kept the young pianist dedicated to performing Williams’ music in the way it was intended, if not fully realized, during her lifetime.

In her sacred works, Diehl said, “I feel that you can always sense the deep religious searching that was such a fundamental part of the latter part of her life … trying to grapple with her own existence and with the ills of society. She was such a benevolent, charitable woman. In her sacred music you get a real sense of her need to find her way in doing good for society.”

One common theme in speaking to those who’ve found inspiration in Mary Lou Williams is the way in which the pianist’s biography and music combine to tell a deeply resonant story. Miller saw her own obstacles reflected in Williams’ struggles and their impact on her career. “There’s a freedom, I find, that comes with being an outsider,” she said. “Mary Lou Williams was one of the premier Black musicians and composers of the 20th century, so it’s shocking that she’s still considered an outsider because of her gender. It’s such a clear representation of sexism and the glass ceiling. But when you’re an outsider and you realize that you’re never going to be totally accepted into a form of music, you might as well just do exactly what you want to be doing. She was unable to be anything but herself.”

“You don’t necessarily think about it when it’s happening,” Tonooka mused about her time spent under Williams’ tutelage. “I didn’t really say to myself at the time, ‘Being around Mary Lou is so necessary for me as a young woman.’ But the mere fact of her was invaluable. Being at this stage of life and just coming through a pandemic that’s taken so many lives, you realize how ephemeral life is. Each person holds a certain amount of history, and every generation carries a different story. So I’m reflecting on the history that I carry, and I’m astounded that I actually had the opportunity to dialogue with a musician of her standing. Her music came from a very deep place with so much grit and spiritual power.”

Douglas shares Tonooka’s feeling of responsibility in the passing on of knowledge and experience to later generations of musicians, a notion that he says he wouldn’t have considered when he recorded his tribute to Williams more than 20 years ago.

“Honoring previous generations of artists has to be more about telling the story of why we feel their music is so important and valuable today,” he explained. “Why is it essential that we talk about Mary Lou Williams in 2021, understand her and frame her contribution in a contemporary light? At 58, I think more about the younger musicians that I meet and how they’re dealing with the lineage and legacy and traditions of this music in ways that are different than I did. And I wonder if there’s anything that I can do to help further those great contributions by someone like Mary Lou Williams that I think are really important.”

By bringing the Zodiac Suite into concert halls and realizing Williams’ vision for the piece as a fusion of jazz and classical music long before the phrase “Third Stream” was coined, Diehl is doing his part.

“It’s an ongoing challenge, even today, to incorporate the language of Black American folk music into this very Eurocentric identity with all its nuances,” he said. “I can only do my small part to celebrate her music whenever it’s possible because she was such a brilliant artist. Today, Monk is at the zenith of American composers, but shortly after he died he wasn’t celebrated like he is now. It took a lot of folks to get into people’s minds that this man was a great musician and composer and that his contributions shouldn’t be understated. It’s important to keep advocating on behalf of these folks who are no longer with us and to keep their music in people’s ears for generations to come.”

Five Essential Mary Lou Williams Albums

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.