Mary Lou Williams Collection, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University
Mary Lou Williams received an honorary degree from Fordham University in 1973.
Mary Lou Williams received an honorary degree from Fordham University in 1973. Mary Lou Williams Collection, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University
My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every so often, she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.
This week, Mary Lou Williams was on my mind. She would have been 100 last Saturday, but as Duke Ellington said, her music sounds "perpetually contemporary." It's true — her recordings and compositions still sound fresh and inventive today. So I played a few for the aforementioned boss:
"Aries (alternate take)" from Mary Lou Williams, Zodiac Suite (Smithsonian Folkways). Mary Lou Williams, piano; Al Lucas, bass. New York, N.Y.: spring 1945.
Purchase: Smithsonian Folkways
Boss Lady: Interesting ... a mix between stride piano and modern classical music.
Me: I'd say that's close to it. Maybe not stride piano exactly, but I too hear a sort of old meets new thing going on.
Boss Lady: I would describe the mood as cool and crisp. Not too many warm tones.
Me: Really? Not even at the beginning? That rollicking, boogie-woogie thing?
Boss Lady: It is funny that it starts like something you'd hear in the back of a bar, like it's going to be a party. But then the keg is switched out for a cool and sophisticated martini with a twist of Debussy.
Me: Yea, crazy, right? Kinda episodic, changing all the time. And at 1:11, it really changes.
Mary Lou Williams recorded this in 1945 –- kind of at the intersection of old and new in jazz. It's the first of 12 movements in the Zodiac Suite, a rather stunning long-form work she put together for piano trio (and later chamber orchestra). This section is a duo movement, of course.
Boss Lady: To be honest with you I find this movement vaguely frustrating and unsatisfying. Maybe because it's a bait and switch. At first I get in the mood for the party, and then I get the introverted, impressionist prelude.
Me: Well, like I said, it's the first part of a longer suite.
Williams didn't write the Zodiac Suite in some sort of cosmic Afro-Futurist sort of way -– though I suppose that's a reading of it. She meant to evoke people who were born under that particular sign. There are two personalities here: Billie Holiday and the saxophonist Ben Webster. As she writes, "Changeable, moody and impulsive, they seemed to me the examples I should choose for my composition."
Boss Lady: I guess you have to be in the mood ... I like Mary Lou Williams' description, "changeable, moody and impulsive." That really fits.
Me: True. You know, other movements here are much different than this one too.
I personally hear a miniature sort of symphony here. There's a lot going on!
For me, it's a sign that Mary Lou was really into a lot of different stuff. I mean, she came from this boogie-woogie, bluesy, Kansas City background, where she learned to swing really hard and write really well in that idiom. By the time she settled in New York, she was exploring all this other stuff –- what you hear as Debussy, and whatever else is all up in there. No wonder so many bebop pioneers -– male bebop pioneers -– looked up to her in their formative years.
Boss Lady: Is the Zodiac Suite considered one of her most important compositions?
Me: Well, it's one of her landmark works for sure. But it didn't have the immediate traction of something like Kind Of Blue; that's also for sure. It debuted on her radio show, was released on 78 rpm discs in limited quantities (shellac was hard to come by during World War II), and had a few orchestral performances. This particular cut was an alternate take –- it comes out a little better than the original, I think.
MLW wrote a lot, in a lot of different styles. Big band swing, small group stuff like this, bebop tunes, and as you may know, massive liturgical works later in her life –- jazz masses, for instance.
Boss Lady: Why did you choose to play it for me?
Me: Well, I suppose I've been thinking about her career lately, on account of her centennial last week and all.
Duke Ellington called her "perpetually contemporary," and I think that fits really well. Whenever she was writing music, she was always at its most inquisitive vanguard.
A person (a woman) who writes jazz tone poems that are both barrelhouse piano and quasi-abstract etude? Right at the cusp of bebop in 1945? Most everything that was jazz back then was, in fact, nightclub and dance music, stuff that set up expectations and then fulfilled them. This is kind of on another level, no?
Boss Lady: Interesting. So this really is a sort of turning point where jazz consciously becomes art music.
Me: It was a long process, but you're catching it mid-stream.
Boss Lady: I do admire the masterful technique and confident compositional voice — that really shines through. It's not a flashy voice, but it has conviction.
Me: Which is why we still remember it 100 years later.