A few years ago, I had the pleasure of watching a documentary called The Girls In The Band about all the women who traveled worldwide with big bands giving their male counterparts a run for their money. One of the women featured was pianist/composer/arranger/educator Mary Lou Williams. Mary Lou is one of two women featured in the famous “A Day in Harlem” picture with all the jazz greats of our time (the other is Marian McPartland – who passed in 2013 shortly after completion of the documentary)
Directed by Carol bush and Executive Produced by Stanley Nelson (who directed Black Panthers: Vanguards of the Revolution), Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings with the Band takes on the journey of what what was like to be a female musician in the 30’s, 40′ & 50’s, what happens to genius when not nurtured properly and that the old adage of “lighter is better” was alive and well.
Having been the only musician to have lived through every era of musical change, Williams, born in Kansas City, MO during great depression of 1929, was said to have been born with a veil (placenta) over her face (which the old folks said gave her the ability to see haints (ghosts).
Having lived a hard knock life with an alcoholic mother and absentee father, Mary Lou left home at 14 years old and found herself married to husband and fellow Andy Kirk bandmate – John Williams at the tender age of 16. Williams and Mar Lou met on the T.O.B.A. (which stands for Theatre Owners Booking Association – jokingly called “Tough On Black Asses” by many in the black artists) and shacked up on tour until they eventually married.
Often called “a band leader without a band”, Mary Lou was one of two very sought after female musicians at the time. The other was Hazel Scott. Miss Scott appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to defend her appearances and performances at rallies and fund raisers. In 1945, she wed Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who became one of the most powerful Congressmen in the nation at that time.
Both women were internationally known and equally as talented, however, Scott would be afforded more opportunities and success – mostly due to her beauty. Thinking that her looks were holding her back, Williams got a nose job believing it would lead to mainstream success. Not known for being a pushover, MLW would often play at the popular Harlem hot spot Cafe Society. After asking one musician to take off his diamond ring, which was chipping the keys of the piano causing her fingers to bleed, she literally walked right up to the dude and punched him in the face.
During a time when most women were mostly singers, only Williams and Lil Armstrong (wife of jazz great Louis Armstrong) and Lovie Austin were the few lauded for their arranging/composing skills. With over three hundred and fifty compositions to her credit, Mary Lou Williams’ imprint on jazz is eternal. Her compositions are too numerous to recount, but a few a definitely worth mentioning like Roll “Em was specifically arranged for the legendary Benny Goodman, Land of Oh Bla Dee became Dizzy Gillespie’s signature piece and The Zodiac Suite infamously inspired by Duke Ellington’s Black-Brown-Beige Suite.
Today, the successful careers of musicians like Geri Allen, Teri Lynne Carrington, Tia Fuller and Esperanza Spalding are the reaping the benefits of from her labor of love and swing.
Mary Lou Williams continue her career as an artist-in-residence at Duke University, from 1977 until her death from cancer in 1981.
This documentary appeared on PBS, on February 20, 2015, and if you missed it, you can catch it now on Fandango or check out up to date info on Facebook at www.facebook.com/marylouproject.