Mary Lou Williams…First Woman of Swing
I have recently been re-reading the wonderful biography of pianist/arranger/composer Mary Lou Williams entitled “Morning Glory,” by Linda Dahl, (1999) University of California Press. I have long been beguiled by Ms. Williams’s compositions and arrangements, especially those she wrote for Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy in the 1930s. These include:”Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Lotta Sax Appeal,” “Froggy Bottom,” Bearcat Shuffle,” “Steppin’ Pretty,” “A Mellow Bit of Rhythm,” “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory,” “Big Jim Blues” (presented below), and “Scratchin’ the Gravel.” Her romping blues “Roll ‘Em,” as recorded by Benny Goodman (also presented below), is one of the most memorable anthems of the Swing Era.
The story of Mary Lou Williams’s life in the male-dominated, testosterone-driven world of the big bands and jazz can be described, without exaggeration, as incredible. She was often forced to use every asset she had, including her fists on occasion, to deal with the many musicians, agents, and other denizens of the music business where she worked and indeed lived from the time she joined a travelling show at age 15 throughout most of her career. She was married at age 16, but the marriage, to saxophonist John Williams, was largely one of convenience. She was a beautiful woman who was almost constantly besieged by the men with whom she lived and worked. (She was on the road almost continuously from 1925 to 1942.) The men in her life, during and after her marriage to Williams, were many. Although she was relentlessly pursued by any number of men, only a few became her good friends, and still fewer, her lovers. She had intense relationships with tenor saxophone giants Ben Webster (who remained a life-long friend), and Don Byas, who did not. Trombone legend Jack Teagarden proposed marriage to her more than once. After she and John Williams finally divorced in the early 1940s (he got off the road and wanted to marry another woman), she soon married trumpeter Harold “Shorty” Baker, who almost immediately went on the road with Duke Ellington’s band, effectively ending their marriage. Although they remained legally married until Baker’s death in the mid-1960s, Ms. Williams lived the life of a single woman from then into the mid-1950s.
Her relationships with legendary booking agent Joe Glaser, whose main client was Louis Armstrong, and iconic bandleader and clarinet virtuoso Benny Goodman, though apparently non-sexual, were fraught with difficulty, much of it created by Ms. Williams herself. It is notable that in each case, Glaser and Goodman, who earned much scorn from many of their associates during the swing era (and after), treated Mary Lou Williams with notable patience. Both men were present in her life for over thirty years, even though she seldom allowed Glaser to secure gigs for her, or work with Goodman. Starting in the late 1930s, she had a penchant for walking away from contractual obligations, the kiss of death in the entertainment business. Glaser often tried to reason with Ms. Williams in the wake of these incidents, usually to no avail. She walked out of a Benny Goodman recording session in the late 1940s, causing chaos. [Benny Goodman and Mary Lou Williams in the 1970s, shown above/ right.]
Other true friends were pioneering bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and his wife Lorraine. Although Ms. Williams maintained what could be called a jazz salon in her Harlem apartment in the 1940s (pictured at left with Jack Teagarden, in white shirt, among the guests), where frequently jazz piano giants Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell were in attendance, these men would cause her grief in coming years, especially Bud Powell.
Due to Ms. Williams’s great talent as a pianist, she could have worked steadily at the best venues in New York and other major cities during her post-Andy Kirk career. Indeed, during several years in the mid-1940s, she was featured in Manhattan at Barney Josephson’s Cafe’ Society Downtown, achieving great critical and commercial success. She also had her own radio show in New York at that time. But due to many factors, a number of which were parts of her personality, she walked away from the success she had worked so hard to achieve. Her life for the remainder of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s was challenging because of a lack of work and consequent lack of funds. (The copyrights for her many compositions were not handled properly from the beginning, and as a result, she spent many years attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to resolve that mess.) In the mid-1950s, after spending a couple of artistically successful years in Paris, she embraced Roman Catholicism, and stopped performing altogether. She returned to her apartment in Harlem, and lived a life of denial of most material things. Fortunately, she became acquainted with a number of Catholic priests who encouraged her to return to music. Her later years were productive ones where her undiminished musical talent was often presented in a variety of settings.
I recommend without reservation Linda Dahl’s biography of Mary Lou Williams.
Here is Ms. Williams’s delightful “Big Jim Blues.”
“Big Jim Blues”
Composed by Mary Lou Williams and Harry Lawson; arranged by Mary Lou Williams.
Recorded by Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy for Decca on November 13, 1939 in New York.
Andy Kirk, directing: Harry “Big Jim” Lawson, first trumpet; Earl Thompson and Clarence Trice, trumpets; Ted Donelly and Henry Wells, trombones; John Harrington, clarinet, alto and baritone saxophones; Earl Miller, alto saxophone; Don Byas and Dick Wilson, tenor saxophones; Mary Lou Williams, piano; Floyd “Wonderful” Smith, guitar; Booker Collins, bass; Ben Thigpen, drums.
This is great example of how a big band can be used to telling effect to create intimate music. Composer/arranger Mary Lou Williams keeps the dynamic level of the band low and insinuating throughout this performance. Guitarist Floyd “Wonderful” Smith starts things off with his tasty single string acoustic guitar interjections, played against the duo of clarinetist John Harrington, and lead trumpeter Harry “Big Jim” Lawson, (whose instrument is cup-muted), and the whispering brushwork of drummer Ben Thigpen. Use of these two instruments is repeated throughout the arrangement providing a recurring sonic and melodic theme. Curiously, Ms. Williams uses an unusual 18-bar structure for this blues (as opposed to the common 12-bar blues). Trombonist Ted Donnelly has a solo after this introductory section, his soulful playing being offset by shifting instrumental backgrounds. Next, lead trumpeter Harry Lawson carries the melody, with the two tenor saxophonists, Don Byas and Dick Wilson, providing a mellow counterlines. The clarinet/trumpet duo returns, this time with a trombone joining the two tenors for contrasting strategically placed low register chords, and then with both choirs of instruments playing together, leading to the ensemble finale.
This is a most creative use of the instrumentation of a 13-piece big band. It is quite far removed from the antiphonal call-and-response saxes versus brass deployment used in so many bands of the late 1930s. I think Ms. Williams was demonstrating in this arrangement that she had been listening most productively to Duke Ellington’s music of the 1930s. Duke was a master of cleverly using the instruments in his band in unusual combinations. But the sound achieved by the Kirk band on this recording reflects its own strong “down home” musical identity, masterfully deployed in a most personal way by Mary Lou Williams
To conclude this salute to the musical genius of Mary Lou Williams, here is a blues of another sort entirely, “Roll ‘Em,” in a classic, romping performance by Benny Goodman.
Composed and arranged by Mary Lou Williams.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor on July 7, 1937 in Hollywood, California.
Benny Goodman, clarinet; directing: Harry James, first and solo trumpet; Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, trumpets; Sterling “Red” Ballard and Murray McEachern, trombones; Hymie Shertzer first alto saxophone; George Koenig, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Vido Musso, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.