“Walkin’ and Swingin'” (1936) Andy Kirk and Mary Lou Williams/ (1970) Billy May

“Walkin’ and Swingin'”

Composed and arranged by Mary Lou Williams.

Recorded by Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy for Decca on March 2, 1936 in New York.

Andy Kirk, directing: Harry “Big Jim” Lawson, first trumpet; Paul King and Earl Thompson, trumpets; Ted Donnelly and Henry Wells, trombones; John Harrington and John Williams, alto saxophones; Dick Wilson, tenor saxophone; Mary Lou Williams, piano; Ted Robinson, guitar; Booker Collins, bass; Ben Thigpen, drums.

The story:

Trying to set the context for this recording truly requires us to reset our sensibilities to another time. Many of the incidents that led to the creation of this music by Mary Lou Williams happened close to 90 years ago. The overriding issues Ms. Williams had to deal with day-to-day then were many. First and foremost, she was a woman in her early twenties, and a beautiful one, working and indeed living with a group of men who were the same age. The conventions of society that usually governed relations between the sexes, like marriage, were of little use in a band of musicians that traveled constantly. Indeed, even simple friendship was difficult because these men and this woman were often together almost twenty-four hours a day for weeks and sometimes months at a time. Things happened. (At right: Mary Lou Williams in the mid-1930s.)

Second, all of this was occurring in a nation when the Great Depression was hanging like a dark, oppressive mist over most human activities. To say that earning a living was challenging then would be an understatement. The amount of money Mary Lou Williams was able to earn working, traveling and living with the Andy Kirk band in the early 1930s was often less than $35.00 a week. This relates directly to the major reason why the Kirk band was severely limited in its earning ability: that it existed in Jim Crow America, where there were two different strata of life, the white one and the black one. And in terms of earning and opportunity (and many others), the black stratum was lower than the white stratum.

Despite these frequently overwhelming challenges, Mary Lou Williams, born Mary Elfrieda Winn in Pittsburgh on May 5, 1910,  was able to survive, and indeed to thrive as a musician. As her biographer, Linda Dahl, has so perceptively observed: “…like a playwright with a resident company, she had her own troupe to realize her (musical) ideas.” (1) The sense gratification, indeed exhilaration, any musician who is an arranger feels when her/his music is first played by a band was something that she reveled in, and indeed continued to learn from.

The Andy Kirk band probably in late 1933-early 1934. John Williams is second from left; Ben Webster is fourth from left. Kirk stands to Mary Lou Williams’s right. Harry Lawson is at far right.

As a person, Ms. Williams had to constantly negotiate dealing with the various men in her life. This was a particularly vexing matter because she was married to a man she did not love, but with whom she could discuss matters rationally, even if they involved her relationships with other men. This man, John Williams, was also a member of Andy Kirk’s band. Probably in 1933, the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster joined the Kirk band. Soon, Mary found herself in love with Webster. Here is how she explained that years later: “My weakness in life was my loving someone whom I thought great on his instrument. When Ben Webster played, I loved him so much! I told my husband John about this, and he said that someone would kill me some day for being so frank.” (2) Webster remained a member of the Kirk band for about eighteen months, leaving in the summer of 1934 to join Fletcher Henderson’s band. During that time, the liaison between him and Mary Lou Williams, most certainly including its musical aspect, remained strong on several levels. Their friendship endured until Webster’s death in 1973.

The music:

Mary Lou Williams always recognized Ben Webster’s contribution to the creation of “Walkin’ and Swingin’.” Exactly what that contribution was has remained unclear. In 1970, she told a researcher that “Ben Webster helped me with the tenor chorus.”(3) In listening to the original Andy Kirk recording of this tune, it is apparent that the eight bar tenor saxophone solo was improvised by the jazz tenor soloist in the Kirk band then, Dick Wilson, who needed no assistance with that. It is my informed speculation that Webster, who was a capable arranger, though he rarely wrote any arrangements, probably collaborated with Ms. Williams on the marvelously creative second chorus, which is played with a trumpet (Harry Lawson) on lead, above Dick Wilson’s tenor saxophone. Although I do not hear the other two (alto) saxophones in this sequence, they may well be there. As Ms. Williams later observed: ” I needed a fourth saxophone, but during that period (we) had only three. As I didn’t have a fourth, I used a trumpet…” (4) This composition/arrangement probably dates from the time Webster was a member of the Kirk band, and of course he would have played the second chorus tenor saxophone ensemble part, as well as the following eight-bar improvised solo that was undoubtedly extended in performances before audiences. (Above left: Ben Webster in the mid-1930s.)

The bouncy performance the Andy Kirk band gave on its Decca recording of “Walkin’ and Swingin'” reflects strongly what was going on in the world of swing in early 1936 when it was made. Mary Lou Williams’s very creative arrangement contains a number of musical contrasts, and it swings gently but persuasively from beginning to end. There is no introduction: this performance simply starts with the main melody chorus, which MLW scored in the classic Fletcher Henderson antiphonal mode, but with a delightful twist: the flowing saxophones being answered by the rhythmic brass, at first muted by metal derbies, then open. This clever use of the brass instruments and derby mutes was novel at the time and much admired. (5) The melody played by the saxophones in this tract is particularly charming. This sixteen-bar sequence, in 2/4 meter, has two eight-bar segments.

The punchy open brass carry the music into the next eight-bar (bridge) sequence, with the saxophones answering. The meter in this segment, which shifts into 4/4, suggesting a 1930s automobile shifting from low gear to second. The shifting of the meter from 2/4 to 4/4 occurs throughout this performance, and it always enhances the music. First trumpeter Harry Lawson leads the ensemble with his bright sound and solid swing through this passage. The ensemble returns to the format used in the first sixteen-bar sequence for eight bars to complete the chorus.

The second chorus, as mentioned above, is quite different from the first, and captivating. Here, Ms. Williams (and probably Mr. Webster), created music that suggests a jazz solo that has been scored for lead trumpet and probably three saxophones. This music is brimming with melody and swinging rhythm. Note how the four eight-bar segments of this chorus meld seamlessly. (Above left: Harry “Big Jim” Lawson in the 1930s.)

The next chorus has Ms. Williams displaying her ability as a jazz soloist on piano. Although she was irrevocably her own woman when she played jazz, I hear traces of the mid-1930s influences of Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson in her solos here. Tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson plays jazz on the bridge (backed by the open brass playing into their metal derbies), and MLW returns on piano to finish this chorus. (Dick Wilson is shown below in 1939.)

The final chorus has the ensemble warming up the music with various different swing devices, all cleverly used. Mary sets up the bright ensemble fanfare from the keyboard at the end of her solo at the end of the third chorus. The brass take charge by playing emphatic bursts and then a strutting descending figure with the surging saxophones below. Then a sequence of riffs, brass against reeds, ensues, quickly followed by an antiphonal sequence spotting the bright, open brass on top of saxophone replies, which contain a snippet of the melody “The Peanut Vendor.” The final sequence has the saxophones riffing against the tart, pointillistic brass, then a smooth ending.

Mary Lou Williams’s composition and arrangement of “Walkin’ and Swingin'” is clearly one of the most creative from the mid-1930s. Bits and pieces of it found their way into the arrangements written by many others during and after the swing era.

“Walkin’ and Swingin'”

Composed and arranged by Mary Lou Williams; transcribed by Billy May.

Recorded by Billy May and The Swing Era Orchestra for Capitol on March 17, 1970 in Hollywood.

Billy May, directing: Clarence F. “Shorty” Sherock and John Audino, first trumpet; Walter “Pete” Candoli, Uan Rasey, trumpets; Francis “Joe” Howard, Milt Bernhart and Lew McCreary, trombones; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, first alto saxophone; Abe Most, alto saxophone; Justin Gordon and Plas Johnson, tenor saxophones; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, guitar; Rolly Bundock, bass; Nick Fatool, drums.

The music: I am fairly certain that master swing arranger and fellow Pittsburgher Billy May enjoyed reconstructing Mary Lou Williams’s classic arrangement of “Walkin’ and Swingin'” for this homage, recorded some thirty-four years after the original done by Andy Kirk. If anyone could appreciate its many musical virtues, he could. It is interesting to try to decipher the various changes that exist between the original recording and this later one. Of course, the beautiful high-fidelity stereophonic sound of this remake makes that easier, but still, a good bit of careful listening is required.

To my ears, the first difference I hear as the first chorus begins is the thicker sonority in the saxophones, the result, I think, of the presence of two tenor saxophones, Justin Gordon and Plas Johnson, both of whom had big, resonant tones. As pointed out above, the 1936 Andy Kirk band that recorded “Walkin’ and Swingin'” had only three saxophones, two altos and a tenor. The second thing I have noticed is the probable playing of the first trumpet parts, except for the one through the second chorus, by John Audino. Audino was an absolutely brilliant first trumpeter who could provide whatever was needed, especially if that was commanding power and high notes, which are NOT required here. His playing in the first chorus is the acme of relaxed, yet precise swing. (At left: John Audino.)

The delightful second chorus is led by Shorty Sherock’s mellow but lithe trumpet. The blend achieved with other instruments is more difficult to discern, but I hear clearly the tenor saxophone of Justin Gordon in the mix, and possibly the alto of Skeets Herfurt. Drummer Nick Fatool, one of the greatest percussionists to emerge from the swing era, adds some crisp back-beats to support this music, something I did not hear on the original, but which works very well here. (At right: Shorty Sherock.)

Pianist Ray Sherman and tenor saxophonist Justin Gordon play the parts of Mary Lou Williams and Dick Wilson expertly, capturing the feeling of the original solos beautifully. (The open syncopated brass behind Gordon are played without using derby mutes). The out chorus is swung with ultimate expertise by these swing era veterans, a fitting tribute to the lady who swung the Andy Kirk band so strongly and creatively.

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Morning Glory …A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, by Linda Dahl (1999), 94-95.

(2) Ibid. 92.

(3) The Swing Era 1936-1937 (1970), notes on the music, 67.

(4) Morning Glory, 94.

(5) The use of metal derby mutes by many bands during the early swing era provided arrangers with quite a few options as to how they could be used creatively to modify the sound of trumpets and trombones. For whatever reason, the use of those mutes diminished during the later swing era.

Here is a link to more delightful, soul-satisfying music by Mary Lou Williams: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/09/19/mary-lou-williams-first-woman-of-swing/

And here is a link to a good summary of Mary Lou Williams’s career in music:

https://www.npr.org/2019/09/10/749743012/how-mary-lou-williams-shaped-the-sound-of-the-big-band-era?fbclid=IwAR06LtpHFED-85OGGh7NKAVxArfsqXj3if90X2rz7ezVgEBbumYUOqgR5Ys

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1 Comment

  1. I was thrilled to see this post coming up — and then very disappointed not to be able to hear your remastering of the Kirk band original. The brilliant Mary Lou Williams is one of my greatest musical heroes. As musician-arranger-composer extraordinaire, she is in a class with Ellington and Carter. It seems that all her work, both diverse and highly characteristic, can be seen as a reflection of her complex personality, with individual pieces bringing forth one or more of many fascinating facets. “Walkin’ And Swingin'”, which I regard as a ’30s big band landmark, gets going from the gate and, I feel, displays its author at her most jubilant. Its interesting to consider the deft Harry Lawson-saxes chorus in light of what we’ve read about both Mary and Ben Webster, each of whom had a very complicated nature: The writing itself mirrors their complexity, but the effect is one of pure, simple joy — a joy in just … walkin’ and swingin’. The motion that the Kirk band’s bright performance conveys always makes me imagine taking an on foot tour of Mary Lou’s Pittsburgh, Kansas City and NYC; the images in my mind are the monochrome of the zillion ’30s photographs I’ve pored over, but the sound of the ensemble provides vibrant color, while the derbied horns suggest the traffic of a busy urban street. In the piano, I think we can hear Mary’s delight in having her composition and arrangement come to life. Yes, we can only imagine the amount of rehearsal that went into that glorious issued take, but in Mary’s playing, I think we can detect the spontaneous pure elation she felt in bringing her ideas to fruition. Hearing Dick Wilson’s suave, unmistakable tone on his nimble bridge, we can only wish that very handsome tenor saxophonist had lived longer to transition into what the mid-’40s held musically. Sometimes, quoting can induce eye rolling, but here, “The Peanut Vendor” (for which I have an immoderate fondness anyway) is literally a guy hawking peanuts, whom you encounter in your ambulatory travels — who could resist a freshly roasted bag? In the final eight bars, the reeds’ groovy figure, which alternates with the brass’ punctuation, anticipates Eddie Wilcox’s “Sit Back and Ree-lax” with the Lunceford band. Mary Lou’s seminal “Walkin’ and Swingin'” certainly takes you places in under three minutes!

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