Laudably, in his fine BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the week Donald Macleod often features female composers and performers (Hildegard of Bingen, Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Lili Boulanger, Meredith Monk, to name but a few; see also The T-shirt), who have been generally neglected. In jazz, female singers have featured more prominently than female composers and instrumentalists; so last week’s programmes (here) on Mary Lou Williams (1910–81) are all the more welcome.
From the Composer of the week website:
A prolific composer and arranger, she was also a gifted pianist. A master of blues, boogie woogie, stride, swing and be-bop, Williams was quick to absorb the prevailing musical currents in her own music, naturally able to exploit her ability to play anything she heard around her. It is this restless musical curiosity that defines her own compositions, and led her to become friends with and mentor many younger musicians, among them Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Born around 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination and the disadvantages of an impoverished family to realise her musical ambitions. Learning to play entirely by ear, she was performing locally by age six. Barely into her teens she was touring professionally as a pianist, living proof that—contrary to the prevailing views—women really could play jazz as well as men. But her artistic success came at some personal cost, with instances of domestic abuse, two divorces, a gambling addiction, and the ongoing strain of trying to support her extended family, all taking its toll over the years. After taking a spiritual path, she spent some years trying to rehabilitate addicted musicians, and developed an interest in writing sacred jazz pieces, and after a long career of some sixty years she took on the mantle of educating future generations about the cultural roots of jazz.
Over the course of the week Donald Macleod follows Mary Lou Williams as her life and musical pathways intertwine, from the early years playing Kansas City swing, to embracing be-bop, religion and modern jazz.
When she was around three years old, sitting on her mother’s lap as she played the harmonium, suddenly Mary Lou Williams reached up and replicated exactly what she’d just heard her mother do. It was a defining moment. Williams’ future had just been decided, and in her own words, “I never left the piano after that.”
The Composer of the week survey features a variety of fine music, with her style constantly evolving. Programme 4, “Music for the soul”, explores her spiritual epiphany—complementing that of John and Alice Coltrane—with works such as Hymn to St Martin de Porres and Mary Lou’s Mass—note the 1964 Folkways album Black Christ of the Andes. And here’s a Greatest Hits album:
See also the documentary Mary Lou Williams: the lady who swings the band (Carol Bash, 2015)—trailer here: