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
In 1973, Fordham University granted jazz artist Mary Lou Williams an honorary degree, and in the picture at left, she looks awfully proud in her mortar board and tassel. It must have been a triumph for a woman of humble beginnings, who succeeded on her own terms against steep odds, through sheer talent, dedication, determination and humanity.
History of Jazz:
"Baby Bear Boogie"
"On Green Dolphin Street" (Kaper, Washington)
"Baby Man" (John Stubblefield)
"Jeep Is Jumpin'" (Johnny Hodges)
"Let's Do the Froggy Bottom" (M.L. Williams, Juanita Fleming)
"Olinga" (Dizzy Gillespie)
"Medi II" (M.L. Williams)
"Bag's Groove" (Milt Jackson)
"I was born in Georgia in the spring of the year, May 8, 1910," Williams would begin her story. "My folks were not well off, but they would share with the neighbors."
Mary Lou Williams, piano
Ronnie Boykins, bass
Charli Persip, drums (Madison concert only)
One day, when Williams was only 3, sitting on her mother's lap at the pump organ, her little fingers reached up and picked out a melody. Her mother dropped Williams to the floor and ran to get a witness.
Fats Waller records were a big influence on young Mary Lou Williams, and so was a Pittsburgh player named Jack Howard, who could almost demolish the keyboard with his fingers, knuckles and fists while he swung. Years later, Williams cited Howard as the one "who got me started on the idea of playing strong, like a man."
Even in her last decade, Mary Lou Williams still had that strength and perfect time. "Don't listen to any metronome," Williams would tell her students. She tapped her foot. Her left hand barked the orders, her right hand sang the melodies and her harmony was always ahead of its era. Her "swingin' left hand" — as demonstrated in 1978 and on this episode JazzSet — remained astounding, even near the end of her life.
Her History Of Jazz
In these two shows from the late 1970s, Williams opens with her history of jazz — a very personal history, as she had helped to shape the music with her own hands. She begins with spirituals and ragtime, then moves on to the blues, saying, "This is the suffering. It's also healing to the soul. Without the blues in the music, it's cold."
In her teens, Williams joined the Andy Kirk Twelve Clouds of Joy band, based in Kansas City. Across the plains, they traveled from 200 to 500 miles a day in cars with no heat. Williams said that if they ran out of gas, the guys got out and pushed. Those were happy memories. In 1936, the Clouds of Joy recorded 20 songs in one week. Williams did the writing, and every side, she recalled, was a hit. She composed for Benny Goodman, Jimmy Lunceford and Duke Ellington, as well.
In 1942, she moved to Convent Avenue in Harlem. Her apartment became a bebop salon. Many nights, she would play at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village. On her WNEW radio show, she premiered the Zodiac Suite, a movement a week from Aries to Aquarius. In 1952, Williams moved on to London and then Paris, living happily among musicians she had known in Kansas City 20 years earlier. Then, after a while, she stepped away from jazz. Dizzy Gillespie helped to coax her back.
When she died in 1981 in North Carolina, Williams was teaching at Duke University. One of the works she taught was Mary Lou's Mass, originally titled Music for Peace. Alvin Ailey choreographed and renamed it, saying, "If there can be a Bernstein Mass, a Mozart Mass, a Bach Mass, why can't there be Mary Lou's Mass?”
Originally recorded Sept. 21, 1978, at the University of Michigan and March 10, 1976, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
For more about Williams, the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University is a tremendous resource. Father Peter O'Brien SJ directs the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, most helpful in obtaining the long-unheard music from University of Michigan on this episode of JazzSet. Thanks, as well, to Wisconsin Public Radio; producer Becca Pulliam saved that tape for 34 years. Restoration by John Solon of Mills Music Library, with thanks to Jane Reynolds.