In Every Generation There is a Chosen One

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“We start, not unsurprisingly, with research” — Rupert Giles

The story of jazz is usually taught as a linear progression, but that’s far too simple. For a few years I’ve been trying to apply my lessons from Whedon to my jazz criticism. The musician who best exemplified how the entire classic jazz tradition was a collection of genres that talk back and forth to each other was Mary Lou Williams.

I’m a little irritated right now. I’m working on a book about jazz, I don’t have unlimited ideas, and I’ve been saving Mary Lou for the book. However, DTM has been light on coverage of women, and after the hullabaloo this week I roughed out the following.

Mary Lou was the great jazz player from the dawn of the music who stayed the most interested in the modernist progression of the idiom. Although she was a swing pianist from the 30’s, she mentored the greatest pianists from the 40’s bop era, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. In 1955 she recorded A Keyboard History, still the only essential album where a brilliant jazz player offers a whole album of straight up tributes. Not tributes to major idiosyncratic stylists like Monk or Ellington, but comparatively local styles, music she considered “all in the family.” Original novelty rags, country blues, boogies, bebops, and several standards done in varied ways.

If you want to bring sexual politics into this: Agatha Christie did the same thing with her book Partners in Crime, which has different chapters written in the styles of her fellow mystery authors. These “motherly” or “family” kind of behaviors strike me as actions female artists are willing to do more than aggressive male artists who only want to stake out their turf and proclaim that they are “utterly original.”

Because she loved and embodied jazz history so much, Mary Lou was the perfect choice to make a history of jazz poster for Jazzmobile in 1971.

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However Mary Lou was also current. She was “every day I have the blues,” and each day was new. She was not interested in recreating the past, but in getting the new and the old to speak together in one vessel. When Father Peter F.O. Brien asked her to play Scott Joplin rags for a 1971 solo recital, she was angry enough to throw the pile of Joplin music back at Brien. However, she did end up programming the Joplin rags, the performance was recorded and released as the double CD Nite Life, and as a result we have a rare example of a consecrated jazz pianist playing Joplin with a swing feel and a bit of ornamentation.

There’s a huge Mary Lou discography — my current collection above is only part of it — and I plan to go all through of it all eventually. For now I give my highest recommendation to Free Spirits from 1975, a spectacular album of avant-garde blues-derived music with the contemporary rhythm team of Buster Williams and Mickey Roker. When contemplating this document it is astonishing to remember that the lead voice and composer began her professional career in the 1920’s.

A misfire is the 1977 two-piano gig with Cecil Taylor, who plays his language over her the whole time, not interacting with swing or the blues in the slightest. I personally think Cecil belongs on Mary Lou’s jazz tree, but this sullen mismatch is good fodder for those wishing to deny Cecil’s credentials. You just can’t treat Mary Lou like that.

Most jazz listeners probably know her vivacious early work best. In that heyday, she was universally beloved as composer, arranger, pianist, and personality.

The very first Mary Lou Williams track I heard was “Little Joe from Chicago” (1939) on a boogie woogie anthology LP. I was about eleven years old, forming a bond with this music, and it quickly became my favorite track on Side A.

Her left hand plays reasonably conventional boogie patterns, but the right sounds like a late 30’s big band. Since Mary Lou arranged so many big band hits for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy and other bands, this mash-up of genres has depth. It also has a superb laid-back, almost even-eighth feel. Her feel is so damn hip.

Finally two summers ago I bit the bullet and learned it from the record. It’s now become one of my party pieces. When I shared the stage taking turns with Kenny Barron, Stanley Cowell, Fred Hersch and Jason Moran at the Vanguard for a night I played “Little Joe From Chicago.” Afterward Lorraine Gordon kissed me “for the boogie woogie” and James Spader said, “This was what we needed to hear.”

(My transcription is marked “formal edit” because it is slightly different than the record in a few details unimportant musically but helpful for study and memorization.)

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For obvious reasons, Mary Lou Williams is the most convenient topic in jazz for gender studies and empowerment. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, but I am bothered when Mary Lou is treated as a black woman first and as an artist second. The two biographies are OK, there’s valid stuff in both of them, but sometimes their lack of hard musical perspective is hard to take. In What’s Your Story, Morning Glory, Linda Dahl writes of Mary Lou’s classic track “Night Life,” her very first piano solo from 1930:

It is “Night Life,” a faster blues, that especially demonstrates her unforced but crisp and authoritative command of the piano. The French jazz critic, Hugues Panassié, who was won of the first to understand the passion in Mary’s playing, paid special attention to her performance of “Night Life” in his (somewhat overwrought) Guide to Swing Music. While her style was clearly derivative of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, Mary, says Panassié, “is much more fantastic and ardent. On ‘Nite Life’ she has made one of the most beautiful hot piano solos we have. Her hot, panting right hand phrases, and the swing she gets by the accentuation in the bass by the left hand, must both be admired.” Sometimes, Mary’s playing spilled over into a kind of nervous passion that would lead her to play at the very brink of rushing the time. This gave her music an edginess and lent a certain abruptness to her endings. But it also fueled the sense of excitement that is one of the prize elements of good jazz.

“Night Life” is not a blues. (There’s blues stuff in there, of course, it’s jazz, but the form is a multi-strain rag or stride piece, even arguably a “novelty rag.”) Quoting a old French critic is not particularly valid in the first place, and calling the performance “derivative” (it’s not) is almost as bad as opining that that Mary spent a lot of time rushing (she didn’t). The abrupt ending is a specialized harmonic effect reasonably unique to various kinds of black music.

Dahl is arguing that Mary Lou’s status as an oppressed black woman gives her playing more “passion” than her contemporaries. Of course, as Mary Lou’s jazz history tree shows, suffering enables you to play the blues, but in the case of “Night Life” Dahl’s rhetoric obscures the actual schematic of the composition at hand.

“Night Life” has, as far as I know, an unprecedented harmonic structure for jazz, and possibly even for European music. The first theme is in F minor and the second theme is in B-flat. I minor and IV major: what the heck? Not even Brahms would have done this, you’d need to look at Wagner, Bruckner, or Strauss, and they seldom wrote in this kind of transparent song form.

The contrasting trio theme is in D minor. Again, it’s very hard to find a way to make D minor relate to F minor.

At any rate key structure is the motivating conceit of this unusual composition. If it weren’t obvious enough already, Mary Lou makes it extra clear that long-term harmonic events is her main game by offering an intro that suggests the relative major A-flat (ending on a long E flat, which is resolved only deceptively to F minor). A-flat only really appears again briefly at the end, a blink of an eye moment that back-announces the whole track as yet a further level of surreal. In its way it is even more shocking than the out-of-key codas of Jimmy Yancey or the unresolved tensions at the end of Bud, Monk, and Bird. It’s totally badass.

I have plenty more to write about Mary Lou but will stop for now and keep researching for the book. Again, I’m irritated. While I try to be reasonably nice to everybody, I am actually profoundly opinionated and judgmental. In terms of who I really love and respect, in terms of who who I really drink in for my art and for my path, there is an absolute meritocracy in the sunken garden that is my subconscious. To get in that extremely exclusive and private preserve you essentially have to be voted one of the greatest ever by a committee of one: me. Mary Lou got in there absolutely on merit. I admit that she is the only woman instrumentalist in that garden from the great era of classic jazz 1917-1967 (I count Nina Simone more as a singer than as pianist, although she was a hell of pianist) but if you tried to take her away from me I’d fight you to the death.

I was looking forward to writing about her just as another great, not as a woman. Now, thrashing about in the throes of what is called a “teachable moment,” I override my (possibly outdated) habit of absolute meritocracy  and say, for the record: Mary Lou Williams, jazz pianist, composer, and woman, was one of the greatest ever to play this music.