A celebrant of jazz
Mary lou Williams once described Kansas City in the '20s as a "heavenly city, " a "place to be enjoyed." The same could be said of any place Mary Lou Williams sat down to play the piano, from Kansas City to Harlem, from 52nd Street to Montparnasse.
For Mary Lou Williams, music was a form of celebration, almost from the moment her mother held her up to the keyboard at the age of three. Her life spanned, like an octave, the history of jazz during the almost seven decades that followed.
As a terrified young prodigy, she was sternly instructed by the first famous jazz pianist, Jelly Roll Morton, on exactly how to phrase his composition, "The Pearls."
When her extraordinary memory permitted her to play back, after one hearing, the complete score for a revue by Fats Waller, the composer, pianist, and bon vivant picked up the skinny teen-ager and tossed her in the air, "roaring like a crazy man."
At the age of 16, she played briefly with Duke Ellington with his first band, the Washingtonians.
Mary Lou knew and loved all the pianists, as she loved jazz itself. She listened -- and listened -- to Pete Johnson and Count Basie in Kansas City when she was playing out of there with Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy, and her recording of her own composition, "Roll 'Em," seems to distill the sound of that time, that place.
As jazz accumulated more subtle musical resources, so did she. When she played "Humoresque," she came closer than anybody else to Art Tatum, the first modernist of the jazz piano. "Art inspired me so much," she said of their after-hours sessions, and Tatum borrowed a run or two from Mary Lou as well.
On the other hand, her recording of "MY Blue Heaven" sounds a bit like a particularly sophisticated Erroll Garner, whom she first knew when he was a teen-ager in Pittsburgh, going to school with her niece.
As if she were the evolving Muse of jazz, Mary Lou was at Minton's in the '40 s, listening to Thelonius Monk play the new thing called "bop," and trying out chords herself with the guitarist Charlie Christian. These "progressive sounds" emerged in her subsequent compositions, like "Zodiac Suite," and in her jazz masses.
Receptive to new ideas, unfailingly generous toward other musicians, Mary Lou Williams changed as jazz changed, as though she were the persona of the jazz piano's next chorus. Buth through it all she always maintained her personal voice. She even played boogie-woogie -- the jazz pianists' strait-jacket -- her own way. Listen to the syncopation within the prescribed eight-to-the-bar syncopation of her "Hesitation Boogie."
And no matter how refined her harmonies became, Mary Lou always swung. Along with everything else, she had a little of the rent-party pianist in her, like James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith -- the people with busy hands and lots of changes who grabbed for attention like a whole band.
In her early days she could ripple and trill right to the precipice of prettiness. In her later days she could strike those debussy-like chords until the listener, at least, almost lost the beat. But then something mischievous, something that certainly was great fun, would start to swagger through the sentiment or the neoclassicism.
Mostly self-taught herself, Mary Lou became a superb teacher to others -- patient, enthusiastic, full of knowledge and technique, passing on everything she had so intensely assimilated. But she was one of those artists who put character first, and at the heart of her teaching was her homily: "You have to love when you play." Nobody ever had to teach this to Mary Lou Williams. The lesson leaps and sings and d ances from the grooves of every solo she left behind her.