In Every Generation There is a Chosen One


“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.


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.)

joe 1joe 2joe 3

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.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired on March 10, 1997, but I didn’t pay attention until my wife turned me on during the DVD era. Multiple viewings of the best seasons remain one of my greatest art experiences. (Starting mid-season 6, the show faltered badly. If I were in charge, the final episode would be the musical “Once More with Feeling” with the last line being, “Where do we go from here?”)

Joss Whedon’s basic idea was, “What if the ‘dumb blonde’ — a stereotype of genre movies — turned out to be the hero instead of the victim?” The show is generally seen as a watershed for female heroes in pop culture, although not all the politics in Buffy stand up to the toughest P.C. police 20 years later.

More important to my own development was the utter clarity with which the show banged together different genres. I am hardly the only person to have responded this way. The magnificent time-sink website TV Tropes is the direct product the many Buffy chatrooms that sprang up during the early days of the internet.

There’s no Buffy episode that doesn’t involve a mashup of disparate elements. However, some of the big ones will probably always be cited in the history books: the meta “The Zeppo” (script by Dan Vebber), the silent “Hush,” the alternative universe “Superstar” (script by Jane Espenson), the funereal “The Body,” and the aforementioned musical “Once More, with Feeling.”

Whedon says somewhere that his father (who also worked in television) taught him that there are no new ideas, just new ways of combining old ideas. At first I didn’t really swallow this: Yeah, maybe in the postmodern age we need to create mashup, but back in the day there were the originators! However, after living with Whedon and TV Tropes for a while I now also see almost everything as the product of new combinations.

The best artists take in their sources at a deep level and manage to hide their borrowings with brilliant sleight-of-hand.

My students sometimes say, “I don’t want to imitate, I want to play something authentic to me.”

If I am in one mood, I might respond in typical wishy-washy liberal arts fashion, “If you feel your own voice coming out, nurture it carefully.”

In another mood, I might be tougher, “Study up! Learn as much detail as you can! After you learn the details, change and combine them with other stuff! By the way, this is what everybody you like to listen to did as well.”

If I’m right about that second statement, I owe it to my immersion in the obvious pop culture combinations of Joss Whedon and the rest of the team: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, James Marsters, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson, David Greenwalt, Marti Noxon, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Kaz Kuzui, Steven S. DeKnight, Jane Espenson, David Fury, Drew Goddard, Drew Greenberg, Rebecca Rand Kirshner, Doug Petrie, and so many others who joined forces to give so much pleasure to so many.

[go on to the Mary Lou Williams essay]

One of the Reasons to Play

(Update: The charge that DTM, which runs to millions of words at this point, is light on women, especially jazz women, is fair. NEW DTM: Mary Lou Williams.)

(3/13: Sarah Deming offers a post-storm essay: “My Husband, the Misogynist.”


Tonight a tweet came in from Rachel Z, who’s a great musician and fellow piano player.

rachel z

This was the cue I needed to redo this page. People I don’t know have been yelling at me on Twitter since day one. I guess they were correct all along, but I take the word of a musician I respect over a stranger. I screwed this up.

As a man I cannot know what it’s like to be a woman in a boy’s club, and jazz is definitely a boy’s club.

There’s great information in this interview with Glasper. But a friend told me: “In an era of divisiveness, the blackest pianist and the whitest pianist sit down to talk serious music and the question people come away with is, ‘do you guys hate women?’”

I think Glasper may be less at fault than my knee-jerk response. I’ve been so sick to my stomach since the election that I can barely see straight. Now that our head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is denying that climate change is man-made, the whole thing seems to be on a countdown to extinction. I want to blame whoever I can. Blaming the right is obvious; I want to blame the left too.

Truthfully, I still think the left has blame to take. However that’s no excuse for trying to cut off the protests of women before they start. The women have a right to protest.

Sincere apologies to Reid Anderson and David King in the Bad Plus. who had nothing to do with the interview or any content on DTM, and who almost certainly would have stopped me from hitting “post” if they had oversight.

Overheard from a source at NPR: “Tell Ethan that Trump got elected because people let powerful men blather on without calling them out!” Noted.

[Original post below]

There’s been pushback on social media about some of the things Robert Glasper said in the DTM interview. I have also been criticized for letting the comments stand.

In case it isn’t clear, there’s hardly an interview on DTM where I agree with every statement an interviewee makes. But I don’t think I’d get such interesting interviews if I questioned everything. The only time I’ve “editorialized” was after Ron’s comments on Garrison and Wynton’s comments on hip-hop. Couldn’t let those slide. With Stanley, Masabumi, and once or twice with others we argue a point a bit. But those aren’t my best moments, either. Just let ’em talk!

Someone said the Glasper interview was worthy of Notes and Tones. For me that’s the highest praise imaginable.  If you go back and look at Notes and Tones, the comments are not politically correct. (This is gravely understating the matter.) That’s the tradition I want be in, and frankly the tradition I most respect: “Warts and all.”

Still, I did debate cutting Glasper’s comments about women. But I figured a saucier edit would be a window into his philosophy and also get me more page views. Glasper okayed the final form.

One Facebook post complaining about the interview begins: “The jazz world needs to speak out RIGHT NOW. The vile sexism in this interview is beyond disgusting.”

I’m a liberal and I’m feminist: this is a case of other liberals and feminists seeing a weakness and attacking. This is part of why Trump won.

There is genuine and serious oppression of women in the world. Glasper (and I) are not part of that serious oppression. The right knows this, of course, and the right revels in the petty political debates that hamstring the left.

Anyway, Glasper’s most important musical influence is his mother, and his manager is a smart woman. Fervently proclaiming that Glasper is against female intellect or female power is ridiculous.

What is potentially problematic is that a big part of Glasper’s style is informed by black dance music mostly about sleeping with young hot chicks. The “Thong Song” is old at this point, but the summer it was the big hit, I walked around with a slack jaw. “This is really an OK song?” I kept wondering. As far as I know, the politics of music in that thread have not gotten better since.

(Indeed, one of the reasons I don’t have much to do with a lot of hip-hop is I can’t figure out how to relate to lyrics I personally find misogynistic. However, there’s also a way that current black music uses sex to intentionally ruffle the feathers of white people. It seems to me it must harm some young women, though. These are deep waters that I mostly stay away from, and certainly can’t navigate with any wisdom.)

Those angrily proclaiming “speak out!” about Glasper should really be going after “Thong Song” and all the current black dance and party music declaring an apparently misogynistic stance if they want to change the world…

But, of course, these agitators know that the “Thong Song” world won’t care. That world makes too much money and controls too much real estate. But: Glasper and I are much smaller, so we might care, right?

In fact, I do care, I’m vulnerable as a feminist and liberal, so I am therefore actually a prime target. Congratulations! I’m genuinely flustered!

(I’m also — don’t be too shocked– quite pleased when there are many cute young women at a Bad Plus show. But much more, I’m enthralled by the intellectual power of women. I didn’t communicate that in the interview, maybe I should have, but poke around DTM, the proof of that assertion is there.)

A lot of the time, this kind of liberal self-policing is less about justice and more about some kind of repellent search for personal power: It feels good to knock someone down and be self-righteous.

Again, this petty stuff is part of why Trump won. Again, the right loves it! They are a monolith. They back their insane fascist, no matter what, in a situation where the phrase “beyond disgusting” could be used with total accuracy.

So many on the left try to gain small victories by making the nearest lefty take a hit. But there have been too many hits and the ship is going down. Now we wonder what the hell comes next.

On a lighter but definitely related note: this tweet by (self-proclaimed) “black feminist cyborg” Hannah Giorgis‏.

UPDATE: two days later:

Apparently for many Glasper and I are the villains of the hour. I knew this was coming when I was deliberately tagged on Twitter with a chorus of the righteous indignant, the lead agitator proclaiming:

“The jazz world needs to speak out RIGHT NOW. The vile sexism in this interview is beyond disgusting.”

I could have turned the other cheek, but I felt I had to take one for the team. I’ve thought a lot about Trump’s win, and remain convinced that the circular firing squad of the left is part his bewildering success. If just a few people will be quicker to look inside themselves and less hasty to condemn after reading what I wrote, then that’s all I can really hope for.

A few regrets about my post:

I wish I had linked to this series about Internet Outrage on Slate, which made a powerful impression at the time and is now validated through personal experience.

I wish I had made it more clear that it was the tone of the aggression that bothered me so much. Anthony Dean-Harris, someone I admire, wrote: “Stopping everything to say ‘perhaps you should think a little harder before saying something like ‘”women don’t like solos”‘ is not why Trump won…”

What?! This is not the tone of what Robert and I were up against: that tone was that of a hate mob who found their next victim. This tone, indeed, is part of why I think Trump won. Internet Outrage is a powerful force in our culture. The left has to take some blame for this: Not as much as the right, true, but the left has to take some of the blame. Still, if someone as smart as Dean-Harris missed this point, obviously I should have made this more clear.

I wish I stated my feminist credentials, I guess. Seems comparatively trivial, but, since some people are asking me on Twitter if I think women should be allowed to play jazz (!?): I am deeply indebted to Geri Allen as a musician, I have imitated her on every gig I’ve ever played since age 16 or so…. On my first boogie-woogie album my favorite track on side A was “Little Joe From Chicago” by Mary Lou Williams. I was too young to even comprehend she was the only woman on the album, it simply was my favorite. (I still play that piece in recital today.)… Charlie Haden, my master and occasional political activist (as long as you put him up in the best hotel in town), once told me, “I don’t think women should play the bass.” I spoke back to him, “Oh, c’mon! You’re a little white guy yourself!” Charlie scowled at me….Concert pianist Ilan Rechtman once said to me, “Martha Argerich is the best woman pianist.” I shot back: “Martha Argerich is the best pianist! Take out that modifier!”…I produced  and performed in a concert of Louise Talma, Miriam Gideon, and Vivian Fine for the Abby Whiteside Foundation, written up here: “Fine, Gideon, and Talma were frequently played during their long lifetimes. Few other American women composers garnered as many awards or made as many recordings, yet their music is seldom heard today except by specialists. Tonight’s concert keeps these vital voices on the concert stage.” My teacher at the time was beloved Whiteside disciple Sophia Rosoff (profiled on DTM by Sarah Deming). My current teacher, John Bloomfield, is a Dorothy Taubman disciple. Between Whiteside, Rosoff, and Taubman, I give thanks to the genius of women intellectuals every day in my piano practice. Another important mentor was beloved choreographer Pearl Lang. I have not interviewed any women for DTM: there have been four outstanding candidates that I’ve extended offers to that haven’t come to fruition yet. I’m not naming my peers in case they don’t want to be associated with DTM anymore, but I expect at least one of them to appear later this year. If someone wants to start paying me for the blog I’ll get on it right away, starting with a trip to visit Allen ..My other great passion is crime fiction. On the occasion of Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday, I got up my hind heels and made a speech in her defense. Of course, sadly Dame Agatha was a touch anti-semitic: also,  one of her best books was originally called Ten Little Niggers.

In truth, the intersection of wonderful artistry and on-point political behavior remains an elusive goal.

Final edit (I hope): People want me to condemn Glasper’s comments. I don’t, partly because, as I alluded to previously, I perceive his music and personality to be connected to black popular music today. From what I can tell, he seems to have been awarded that status, as the connector. I also perceive much current black popular music to be mostly about sex, sometimes straight up nasty, and not infrequently misogynistic. I’m uncomfortable with this stuff. It’s not music I listen to or interact with much. Of course there’s also politically advanced current black music: It seems like Beyoncé is the most important musician in world, politically speaking. (Maybe she’s most important musician, period.) This is really stereotypical shit I’m typing now: I’m not proud of this paragraph. But in a world where the ultra-white La La Land is acclaimed as a jazz movie, I’m not going to police Robert Glasper. It’s up for fellow black musicians to police black music, not me. It’s simply not my place. As far as I’m concerned, Glasper gets to do what he wants, ’cause if there’s no current black culture in jazz, we can all take up the tents and go home.

Also, the erotic and the creative are intertwined. I got good at piano partly to impress girls. That was not the biggest reason, but it was a factor. Vladimir Horowitz said he wanted to “fuck” his audience (Dubal: Evenings with Horowitz). John Coltrane, when asked about three wishes, gave one of them as, “Three times the sexual power I have now.”  I could never have said what Glasper said because I’m overtly concerned with feminism — but I’m not here to police other people’s relationship to sex and creativity, either.

Lastly, I do think there’s a problem with sexism in jazz. Of course. When Shimrit Shoshan died, I wrote:

I always appreciate it when students show genuine concern about learning the details. One time Shimrit Shoshan brought in a bootleg of Monk practicing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and I was truly impressed. Talk about the right kind of apple for the teacher!

I didn’t know her well, and I’d never heard her play outside of a few tunes at class. But I loved her direction and told her so. She was into not just Monk but Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Andrew Hill. 1950s piano madness, the blacker and weirder the better.

Honestly, I thought the only thing that might hold her back was her stunning good looks—an asset I’ve seen become a burden more than a few times in the relentlessly hetero-male NYC jazz scene. But I wasn’t too worried, and looked forward to hearing what she had figured out in a few years.

I’m sure everyone who knew her was astonished to hear of her sudden passing today. The last time I saw her she was young, healthy, and vibrant. But I’ve talked to a few folks and the sad news is 100% confirmed.

While finding her path, Shimrit would definitely have formed an opinion about the bridge of “Well You Needn’t.” I wish I could find out what it was, or would have been.

There’s a problem with sexism everywhere. But at the same time, jazz is better off than many disciplines. The singers are seminal, and you can’t write a truthful history of instrumental jazz without Mary Lou and Geri at the very least. If you want to get deeper there are many important women players, and important audience members, too. (Let’s start with Baroness Nica, who asked ‘Trane about wishes.) The top band at Stanford jazz workshop last summer was over half women, and they sounded great. Hell, there’s nothing Glasper and I can do to keep women out of jazz: they been here and they are still comin’!