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Mary Lou Williams

“No one can put a style on me. I’ve learned from many people. I change all the time. I experiment to keep up with what is going on, to hear what everybody else is doing. I even keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next.”

—Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was a master jazz pianist, arranger and composer with a career spanning six decades. Born in May 1910, she played with or inspired everybody from Duke Ellington — a musician she’d later write and arrange many songs for– to Louis Armstrong of whom, when she was 15 years old, she said “picked me up and kissed me” after hearing her the first time at a Harlem nightclub. Scattered over her more than a hundred recordings she composed, played or arranged everything through swing, gospel, bebop, jazz and was in fact the first jazz musician to write and record sacred music.

There’s few jazz musicians from the 40’s through the 60’s whom she didn’t tour and play with or who admired her ability. She was the only female musician to stand on equal footing with all those very male jazz heavyweights. Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker– all musicians she mentored, all folks who would pile into at her small apartment after hours in Harlem and jam. She once told Ebony: “They’d all sit on the floor and alternate playing. Then Bud Powell would play and no one could play after that.” And how much would you give to be a fly on the wall in that apartment?

She was born in Atlanta, Georgia within a huge family and raised in Pennsylvania. She was a self taught pianist and prodigy from as early as six years old, playing society parties in Pittsburg, the city where she grew up. She supported her siblings through playing piano. Limos would be dispatched to pick her up to go play and she would return with checks or more money scrunched in a handkerchief than her stepfather made in week.

She told People in 1980:

“I’m a loner. Duke Ellington said something—music was his mistress. Well, the same thing happened to me. You can have a husband or a boyfriend, fall in love, and they leave you when you least expect it. That can kill you. But I couldn’t care less if I’m with somebody. Music is my constant companion. It lives right here in my mind. It saves me.”

There’s one story from Mary Lou’s life that interests me most. She was on a nine day tour through Europe in 1952 and ended up staying two years, playing primarily London and Paris. Paris even named a club after her. Then, in about 1954, legend has it she walked off stage and dropped out of performing for several years. “I just stopped playing and started praying,” she once said regarding that incident. Though she never clearly delineated what she felt or experienced, between the legend of the music industry and the toll drugs and alcohol were having on her peers in the jazz scene in New York, its not hard to imagine suffering some kind of spiritual crisis. What did she see looking up into the intoxicated audiences surrounding her in those late night smoky jazz clubs? It rattled her enough to where she vowed to cease playing and recording. She subsequently returned to New York and converted to Roman Catholicism. She gave away expensive clothes, opened her door to people on welfare, and established thrift shops to support struggling musicians. A Catholic priest, Father Peter O’Brien, eventually became her manager. It was himself and Dizzy Gillespie who convinced her she could help people with her music and she returned to the stage for the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957.

She was a remarkable artist — one whose life was so huge and impactful I cannot do her justice. Her composition, Mary Lou’s Mass, was set to movement by Alvin Ailey in 1971 and was the first jazz piece performed at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. My introduction to her was this intense and funky spiritual stomper from her Black Christ of The Andes album: Praise the Lord.

Williams died at age 71 in 1981. She once said: “I try to write music that would give peace to the soul or the heart. Music has a message. But people are too upset to listen to it…”

Don’t get upset. Listen to Credo and be grateful for Mary Lou Williams.

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