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Mary Lou Williams - "The First Lady of Jazz"
Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway and many others.
Mary Lou Williams is the only major Jazz Artist who lived through all the
eras in the history and development of Jazz. A pianist, arranger and
composer extraordinaire, Williams is credited with arranging and writing
for all the well-known big band leaders during the Swing Era including the
Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington,
IN JAZZ SITE CONTENTS
Mary Lou Williams
was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia,
and grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As
a very young child she taught herself to play the piano and her first public
performance was at the age of six. She became a professional musician in her
teens and became a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger.
Her professional debut with big bands came at age 12
substituting for a pianist in a vaudeville show and for the next few years
she toured and played with such artists as Jelly Roll Morton, Willie "the
lion" Smith, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
A child prodigy with perfect pitch and a highly developed musical memory,
she began playing by age four. By age ten she was known as "The Little
Piano Girl," playing at private parties around Pittsburgh where the family
moved when she was 6 years old. "Around Pittsburgh, I played for many wealthy
families, the Mellons, in particular. I was just a kid. They were
wonderful! Theyíd send a chauffeur out for me and Iíd play for their
private parties. Once they gave me $100. My mother almost
fainted. She wanted to know if the lady drank. She even called the people to
see if they had made a mistake."
In the early forties Williams began a long happy engagement at Cafť Society
Downtown in New York City. She was playing on and off, more on than off for
approximately five years beginning in 1943.
The years between 1941 and 1948 were an intense period of
creativity in Jazz and New York was the place to be. Williams arrived
on the scene just in time to capitalize on the history making events of that
era. It was during this period that Williams came in contact with musicians
such as Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, Tadd
Dameron, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Dorham, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Bud Powell,
and Thelonious Monk, who was in her company daily. Many of these
musicians would hold court in Williamsí apartment after hours creating and
playing new sounds that would push forth the Bop Era.
Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk would bring their
compositions to her to listen to and the musical sessions extended through
the night and into the next day and might involve Erroll Garner or Mel Torme
or Sarah Vaughan, etc.
In 1964 she founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and served as director for
three years. Williams even published her own music through her Cecilia
Publishing Company and recorded her own Mary Records label. She was
also founder and served as president of the Bel Canto Foundation for needy
musicians as well as the general poor and young children and she started the
New Reform Foundation for gifted children between the ages of 6 and 12.
died on May 28, 1981.
Mary Lou Williams was the "Mother
She was the mentor to Dizzy, Bird, Monk, Bud Powell and Tad Dameron, who gave them the secrets of the flatted 5th and started the bebop
revolution. Monk stole a tune from her. "Rhythmning
" was a Mary Lou Williams' riff in one of her arrangements for Andy Kirk and
Thelonious Monk made a song out of it without even changing it at all. -
The Mary Lou Williams Collective
Zodiac Suite: Revisited
Mary Records (M104)
Geri Allen (piano & musical director);
Buster Williams; Billy Hart; Andrew Cyrille. (February 7, 2006)
Mary Lou Williams Collective, under the musical direction of
pianist/arranger/ composer Geri Allen, reexamines and revitalizes Mary Lou
Williamsí Zodiac Suite - the first lady of instrumental jazzís
landmark 1945 recording of her collection of twelve solo, duo and trio piano
pieces named for the astrological signs of the fellow jazz greats to whom
they are dedicated - on Zodiac
Suite: Revisited. Allen, joined by virtuoso bassist Buster Williams
(Mary Lou Williamsí frequent colleague) and drummer Billy Hart (the very
creative third member of the younger pianistís working trio from 2003), in
the words of producer Father Peter OíBrien, SJ, "explores and
explodes the music " preserving the composition, but putting herself
entirely into it." In addition to the selections from the suite, the
trio also recreates Williamsí exciting collaboration with bassist Milton
Suggs, "Intermission." On the dateís other two selections,
Herbie Nicholsí "The Bebop Waltz" (a favorite of Mary Louís)
and "Thank You Madam" (Allenís dedication to Williams), the
great Andrew Cyrille, who had performed often with Williams and appeared on
Allenís debut recording, makes a guest appearance on drums.
Zodiac Suite: Revisited begins, as the original does, with
"Aries" Williamsí dedication to Ben Webster and Billie Holiday,
uniquely talented artists who the composer called "pioneers, people who
create sounds and things youíve never heard before." Initially
recorded as a piano-bass duet, Billy Hart opens Allenís arrangement alone
on drums, rhythmically transforming the composition, which featured a
Monkish melodic line with a boogie woogie mid-section in its earlier
incarnation (described by trumpeter Dave Douglas as a post-modern
construction). The Collectiveís interpretation is radically different,
alluding to the impressionism of Herbie Hancock (Allenís primary
influence) and the shifting moods and tempos of his work with Ron Carter and
Tony Williams in the Miles Davis Quintet, before emphatically stating Mary
Lou Williamsí memorable melody utilizing parallel octaves.
"Taurus," the second section of Zodiac Suite, was
composed by Williams prior to the other sections of the suite. Representing
her own birth sign, it is also dedicated to Duke Ellington and Ellis
Larkins, Allenís reflective solo piano introduction replicating the
elegance of those two pianists. The body of the piece is reminiscent of
Ellingtonís "jungle band," with the pianistís ominous left
hand line and dissonant right hand clusters setting the mood over Hartís
mallets. Buster Williamsí melodic bass is spotlighted here.
Allenís arrangement of Williamsí "Gemini" follows the spirit
of the original recording faithfully, utilizing an up tempo boogie woogie
left hand line on top of which she builds a playful childlike theme
assembled from a progressively constructed musical scale. After a brief
ethereal interlude the trio restates the boogie woogie theme before moving
into a more modernistic motif that hearkens to latter day Ellington.
"Cancer" is melancholy melody in a minor mode, a composition of
uncommon beauty, that moves between Allenís slowly waltzing piano rhythm
to a more open landscape created by Hartís quietly dynamic cymbals and
Williams softly bowed bass.
Hart opens "Leo" boldly with a martial drum beat before Allen
states the Williams themeís fanfare with a menacing exaggerated
dissonance. Dedicated to Vic Dickenson, the pieceís middle section is a
moving memorial to the great trombonistís beautiful way with a ballad, to
which Allen introduces a modern harmonic touch reminiscent of Coltraneís
"Naima" and Mc Coy Tyner, before the trio revisits the openingís
"Virgo" is a swinging medium tempo blues that reflects Williamsí
early allegiance to the bebop revolution. Allenís Monkish articulation
follows the originalís mood, as does Buster Williams powerful walking
bass. Mary Lou dedicated this composition to Leonard Feather, one of the new
musicís first journalistic champions.
Allen performs "Libra" as a solo piano piece, just as Mary Lou
originally did. The earliest composed section of the suite (along with
"Aries"), Williams dedicated it to Dizzy, Art Tatum, Bud Powell
and Monk, who she described as "very beautiful friends." As Dan
Morgenstern observes in his notes to Zodiac Suite, it has a "very
pretty opening and attractive, impressionistic harmonic movement" Ė
qualities which make it a perfect vehicle for modern interpretation by
Buster Williams introduces "Scorpio" with a rhythmic bass figure
and is then joined by Hart, with wide cymbals splashes followed by softly
malleted drums, before Allenís entrance, which is vaguely reminiscent of
Juan Tizolís Ellingtonian classic "Caravan" in its eastern mood.
The final four sections of the suite are all solo piano pieces originally
improvised live by Williams on her weekly WNEW radio program.
"Sagittarius" was first dedicated to pianist Eddie Heywood and
later to bassist Bob Cranshaw by Mary Lou. Itís a thoughtful theme
Morgenstern compared to Bix Beiderbeckeís "In A Mist." Allenís
interpretation retains the originalís pastoral quality in a slightly more
modern way that also hearkens to Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett.
"Capricorn" is a melancholy melody in a minor mode (written for
Williamsí Cafť Society compatriot, trumpeter Frankie Newton) that Allen
delivers with percussive aplomb. "Aquarius" is an attractive piece
with modulating moods that Williams dedicated to President Franklin Delano
Roosevelt. The concluding "Pisces" is an elusive Williams waltz
that highlights Allenís beautiful touch and tone.
The trio of Allen, Buster Williams and Andrew Cyrille perform pianist Herbie
Nichols attractive composition "The BeBop Waltz," a piece Mary Lou
recorded three times under the title "Maryís Waltz." Although
the previous recordings improperly credited the composition to Williams,
producer OíBrien sets the record straight here, noting the true composer
and Williams love and respect for the unheralded genius, Nichols. Buster
Williams is featured with a moving, articulate solo on this gorgeous
Billy Hart is back with Williams and Allen on "Intermission," the
1973 collaboration between Mary Lou and bassist Milton Suggs, previously
recorded on the elder pianistís excellent Zoning album. The whole
trio stretches out on this swinging interpretation of the exciting
composition, with Allenís melodic pianism anchored by Buster Williamsí
powerful bass ostinato and propelled Hartís energetic drumming.
The date concludes with "Thank You Madam," a tender ballad
composed by Geri Allen in honor of Mary Lou Williams especially for this
recording with Buster Williams and Andrew Cyrille. Producer OíBrien
insightfully describes the piece as one which "is built up from a
musical motif which gently rises and softly resolves, then rises again and
resolves and continues in this hopeful manner, until it peacefully and
quietly dissolves. It is a loving tribute from Geri Allen, who would
especially know the musical heart of Mary Lou Williams."
Geri Allen, as musical director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective, is
particularly well suited to revive the musical legacy of the great Mary Lou
Williams. Zodiac Suite: Revisited, pristinely recorded by DJ
Val Jeanty (of Allenís husband Wallace Roneyís band) on Allenís own
piano in her Montclair, NJ home, is an intimate revisitation to this
important music. Future releases by the Collective are to include a disc of
nine Williams originals with guest appearances by vocalists Andy Bey and
Honi Gordon and another date featuring some of Mary Louís previously
unrecorded sacred music. With Geri Allen at the piano, the music of Mary Lou
Williams is alive and well for yet another new generation of jazz lovers,
ensuring the great ladyís musical immortality.
Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services
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