Mary Lou Williams

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Related: my tributes to Mary Lou Williams: Listen (mp3) Innocence, 600Kb - From Solo Piano Compositions - Jessica Williams, piano, composer - buy


I met Mary Lou Williams only once, shortly before she left us. It was at the Keystone in San Francisco, and she was doing a week there. I think the band was Larry Gales on bass (whom I would play with when I was with Eddie Harris) and Eddie Marshall on drums, a fine world-class Bay Area drummer.

I played a few times for her that week, and she was extremely encouraging to me. Her advice to me about being a woman playing this Music was succinct and invaluable.

This was over a quarter of a century ago, and I can't remember much else ... I know she said this, though: 'Don't ever let anyone stop you.'

And I never did. I refused to stop playing this Music, and I feel I have a very small but very pertinent contribution to make to it. Mary Lou Williams had more than a little to do with my success. She was a great musician, a powerful and very beautiful woman, and a caring and loving human being.

As my Karmic reward for taking her advice to heart, I was invited to play at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington DC. in May of 2004 (reviewed here).

I've written a suite in her honor, SERENATA, which includes my composition Innocence; mp3, 600k, which opens my album Solo Compositions

When I took the stage there with my trio (Ray Drummond on bass and Victor Lewis on drums, two of the finest jazz musicians in the world), I was thinking of Mary Lou Williams and her words to me:

'Don't ever let anyone stop you.'


I've had occasion to write about one of my personal role-models, a woman of great power, style, and substance:

Mary Lou Williams.

At a time when America was a gruesomely inhospitable place for people of color, at a time when women in general were thought of and treated largely as property or as less than fully human and when being supremely gifted was a mark of abnormality, Mary Lou was pioneering a path through American Improvised Music, leaving a legacy of honor and a body of work that should serve to spark the imagination and increase the determination of any woman, black or white, old or young, that has a passion and a love and a gift for something other than the culturally proscribed and accepted 'norm'; that is to please a man and to be his servant. There are many men in America that do NOT have these expectations, and that are relatively free of the dark and terrible tradition of the past several thousand years. Unfortunately, there remains an obstinate core of those who still reject the reality of woman's abilities and potentials. Nothing I or anyone else can write will change these minds; only time and generations will gradually erase that blight on human consciousness... the blight of bigotry.

Knowing that we're gradually moving forward is of little comfort when the barriers are still so palpable in certain professions and life-paths. The pursuits that are most resistant to women's participation seem to be those pursuits that have a long tradition of male dominance and a very low tolerance for inclusion.

Strangely, but perhaps in some ways understandably, American Jazz is one such pursuit. Only so far as exclusion and exclusion can be called 'understandable', jazz represents a vocabulary at once of freedom and at the same time of tradition, both intrinsic to the art-form.

I remember hearing a famous jazz musician being asked on a nationally- broadcast TV show what the roots of jazz were. He said that it was 'the Black Man's way of wooing women'; while it might be true for him, I thought it was a pretty pathetic and misinformed answer. Too many women gave their lives to play this Music, and too many men, Black or otherwise, were driven by forces far more momentous and profound.

Look to John Coltrane's quest, through music, for a supreme universal force... Monk's deeply graceful compositional style and equally disorienting playing style... look to Sarah Vaughan and Oscar Peterson doing 'Midnight Sun'... or to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong doing 'Let's Fall in Love'. There was a lot more than 'wooing' going on, so much so that we may have to question how this musician ever got past the starting gate.

So, while it's commonplace to hear that 'your pilot for this United Airlines flight is Captain Mitzi Farrell', it's not quite as common to see women instrumentalists playing jazz music, and even less common to see older women playing (not singing). Besides being very male-oriented, jazz has also had a long tradition of ageism when it comes to women's participation.

We've seen our recent share of young women jazz musicians trying to stay young, even when it's pretty obvious that no one stays thirty forever. I've seen a woman lose a contract or a playing opportunity when it was revealed that she was 'older than they thought'. I've been that woman at times; many of us have this shared experience. Many of us choose to not discuss it due to the possibility of censure. No one likes a complainer.

As our culture moves forward (hopefully it will continue to do so, and perhaps 'lurches' is a better word than 'moves' to describe the process) we'll be well-served to remember these women that came before. Their suffering at being silenced can never be overstated. Sylvia Plath may be a legend (and a good subject for a TV movie) but she's hardly a great role-model for women.

It's the women we know almost nothing about that I want to explore and get to know!

Recently I found a web site devoted to art and music made by women. It is called and it covers quite a bit of territory. If you can play MIDI files on your computer (you most likely can) there's a wonderful page literally crammed full of piano-roll midi files going back centuries. (Obviously, many of these compositions were not for the piano, as it hadn't been invented yet; there are Gregorian Chants by women, Choral Ensembles by women, Chamber group music by women, and, delightfully, a plethora of 'RAGS' by women... everything from 'Dusty Rag' to 'Sloppy Mop Rag'). Visit their web site to enjoy the many incredible musical gems, written by women that you've probably never heard of before. Silenced by time, but silent no more. If the Internet had only enabled THIS singular advance in culture, it would have justified its existence.

Quotes by Mary Lou Williams:

'I began building up a defense against prejudice and hatred... by taking my aching heart away from bad sounds and working hard at music.'

'Jazz is a spiritual music. It's the suffering that gives jazz its spiritual dimension. That's what our young jazzmen today have forgotten. Only through suffering is a true thing born.'

'You had to have a strong left hand in those days or they wouldn't pay attention to you.'

'If we are to make progress in modern music, or, if you prefer, jazz, we must be willing and able to open our minds to new ideas and developments.'

There really are miracles in this life, things that are achievable with diligence, hard work, lots of talent, and a pure heart. When someone tells me there are many reasons why they are not doing what they love, I hear only one reason: they've given up on their dream. Given up on themselves. This is not to say that certain obstacles aren't unbelievably difficult, and that certain dreams aren't attainable. It's just that options are at hand, and models for success are everywhere.

Often, the most successful people are those who have had to overcome great adversity and handicaps. Their drive and motivation was of a pure heart; there was no other agenda except to realize their dream, execute their vision, give their gift to the world.

Whether it wanted it or not.

When flying, I may still sit in coach, while a record executive rides in first class. But I carry the Music, untouched, clean, pure, and powerful. Without the Music, record execs would take the bus.

Power in Western Civ has come to mean economic wealth, but true power is in the will and the heart and the soul. Power is the way Miles made you weep when he played with the harmon mute; power is the towering edifice that is Coltrane's legacy.

Power is Mary Lou Williams bringing her mighty gift to the audiences in America at a time when America was torn apart by racial bigotry and prejudice. Mary Lou was a miracle of power, of success, of wisdom, and of determination.

Models for success are everywhere, and she is just one. Our media doesn't tend to focus on the truly giant spirits, and it's a sadness; there are enormous spirits, great and mighty souls alive every moment among us. People with the gift to heal. People with the ability to communicate love and beauty. People able to take raw stone and make a marvelous statue; able to play an instrument with the grace of an angel; able to paint or write or dance or sing or build or invent, with the ease and purity of heart that comes with total peace within one's self.

It's loving one's self, being completely at peace in one's own heart, that liberates the best within any of us.

It's possible to do just about anything. One might argue that it's impossible to breathe on the Moon, but it IS possible if you have the right equipment. You get that equipment by having a great team. NASA made sure that the first astronauts to walk on the Moon's surface had the 'right stuff' to make their trip not only possible, but successful.

It's a good analogy, because if there had been one simpleton on the team, that heroic trip might not have been the landmark success that it was. In daily life, we need to have a good working team. Even if it's just one person! Your friend. Your husband, or wife, or partner. If you're alone, be your own best friend! If you're not on your own team, success isn't likely.

As I move toward my goals in this life (and every day I get closer to them, and every day I become stronger, healthier, more beautiful!) I try to remember that my success won't be truly measured by anyone else but me.

I may not play as many notes in as many milliseconds as someone who sees music as a competitive sport. (I bask in the personal knowledge that I can, actually, play much, much faster than ever, and I sometimes scare myself with my speed just to remind myself how vain I once was.) Now, when I perform, I play melodies that audiences can hear and feel and respond to. I let my true gift pour forth: the gift of melody. I always was a romantic, and I love to make people feel good. It makes me happy.

A goal has already been achieved. In this life, I am doing exactly what I've always wanted to do. Make people happy with my music.

If I never achieve anything else, it's ok by me. I'm a happy woman now. There are many more things I want to do, and much more music to be made. But if it ended tomorrow, I'm ok with myself. That's a great feeling.

An Interview with Mary Lou Williams

I play all styles, everybody should. It's all great. And what has happened during this era, some of the avant-garde guys think they're so far out until they're greater than the other cats but they're not. All the music is great. It's music that should be on earth, should be played all the time because it has a healing in it. And it's a conversation, if you can get to it while you're playing. It's really needed. There's a need for people to hear because the commercial music that's being played on radio and TV, it makes people frantic and puts people up in the air so far and you need something to quell them, you know what I mean. Because I see great havoc on earth if jazz doesn't come back on radio and TV soon because the other music is making people too nervous.

Say for instance with the electronic, my ear has gone out - and I thought because I was older - and the doctor tells me that's happening to young kids. It seems to be an evil to me: to play so much of one kind of music and not even the classics. You see the priests of the church they know it's religious music. It came out of the spirituals. Even Cardinal Cook opened up and let me do something that was like a miracle: to do a jazz mass in Saint Patrick's Church in New York - on Fifth Avenue? Where millionaires and things.

They told me the people came to protest and said they loved it so they went away ravin'. They asked me when was I going to do another one? And that's a miracle. See because they know the music is valuable and you should be playing.

Because there's a lot of money tied up in rock. Rock is good some of it. But the slop that you hear on TV and radio is terrible. It destroys a natural talent. Little kid two or three years old that would play the new era of music, it destroys him. He listens to what's being played and it's nothing. And writing music: I may hear something now while I'm talking to you. The music that I'm representing is completely different than what you would learn in the school. Now if I went to school and studied, I'd be able to write for NBC and the movies. And I don't like that, I create too much. See it blocks you.

In writing compositions or playin' jazz, you gotta be free enough to play it as it comes in the mind. As fast as lightning, it comes from the mind, the heart--fingertips, faster than lightning. And if the mind stops, you just do patterns until you can get back. But in writing the same thing happens. Like I was talking to someone and I finished an arrangement all the time I was talking to him and yet I could carry on a conversation. It's according to how open you are for the feeling that comes forth, see? And it's wonderful that way. You never get stuck. Often I'm driving the car and hear a horn go Toot! and start a tune. I was on my way downtown on the subway and just from the noise of the wheels I arranged something.

You never know when the inspiration is gonna come. I'm all music. They used to call me a dummy in the band. You see I was not allowed to talk until I was about twenty-five or thirty years old--the band I was with they'd tell me, 'Shut-up, think music, stop talking.' And that's what they did more or less. And there was a mental telepathy kind of a thing going forth when they were with the band and when you played with 'em. A guy would play something and you could answer him immediately then. And the minds were kept flowing like that. Fast minds and what not.

Much different than what's happening now. Each individual is for himself. He saves himself and he could care less and I don't understand it because if I don't accompany you well then I won't even feel like playing a solo myself because you will not be able to play anything if I don't accompany you right, see? And it's just an individual and technical world now, electronic.

I have a lot of young kids, they come to me Saturdays if I'm working in New York. I take them back to Fats Waller and bring them up to date. They've got to know about the older music in order to play avant-garde. See the guys that they're patterned after like Coltrane and all that, they would never be a Coltrane because they don't know anything about the Basie. It's just like you going to school starting in kindergarten, first, second grade.

So what I do, I take them back to the older musicians. I trained Hilton Ruiz who was with Rahsaan. I took him back to Fats Waller. I had him swinging the left hand. He can play anything. And that is the only advice I could give them.

-Excerpt from interview with Mary Lou Williams between sets at Keystone Korner, S.F., 1978