The scene was a church basement in Harlem, a few blocks from the Jazz Museum’s headquarters on 126th street, battered pleather chairs lined up in rows, sparsely populated at the start of the ninety minute class, but fairly full by the end. Led by the inimitable Loren Schoenberg, the Tuesday “Jazz for Curious Listeners” classes are a long tradition of community outreach by the museum. Tonight’s event focused on Mary Lou Williams, the genius composer and pianist whose life expanded and evolved with the music around her. She shed her musical conventions like snake skin, embraced the changes in the genre, was open to new ideas. She learned from the great older generation (Jelly Roll Morton schooled her on occasion), and she was a mentor to the younger generation (Charlie Parker, Monk, Miles, Dizzy G).
Mary Lou learned how to play piano by sitting on her mother’s lap as her mom practiced the organ. At age two, she surprised her mother by reaching the keys for a song before her mom did, having picked up the tune. The family moved to an all-white neighborhood in Pennsylvania, where Mary Lou won over the neighbors by playing piano at their houses. She played at a funeral parlor for $1 an hour to soothe the grievers. Her father took her to play at a gambling parlor on the sly, where she made $30 a night, but the pair would lie to her mother about where they’d been. Once, she got home from school and there was a chauffeured car parked in front of her house, a rich matron wanted to book her talent for a bridge game. When asked how much she charged, Mary Lou said, “$1 an hour,” but at the end of her two hour session, the woman wrote her a check for $100. A savvy patron of the arts, indeed.
She married the saxophonist in the Andy Kirk band (John Williams), and when the band’s pianist failed to show for a recording session, she got her break. She then began writing music for them, then for Benny Goodman, and for Duke Ellington. Embracing Catholicism in her 40s, she wrote three Masses for the church. She ended her career with a faculty position at Duke University.
During technical difficulties, our lecturer told two bad jokes:
“Roses are Red, Violets are Blue. I’m a schizophrenic and so am I.”
“I went on a date with a woman last night that was so old that Lincoln takes HER birthday off” which prompted an audience member to suggest that we sing “Happy birthday” to Lincoln since today marks his birthday, and the teacher leaped up to the dusty, ill-tuned piano to lead us in a semi-rousing song.
Happy Black History Month, everyone! I hope you take the chance to explore Mary Lou Williams’ work, incredibly groundbreaking at the time, and still relevant and inspirational today. Let’s not forget that she was a woman working in a male-dominated world, and was fairly dominating the jazz scene herself. You can check out Mary Lou Williams' work in Manhattan on February 20th with an in-depth, amazing concert led by Deanna Witkowski.