Sizzle, Soul and Spirituality
By Victoria Looseleaf
In the church of American jazz, worshipping at the altar of a Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or Benny Goodman, for example, is a given. Add to that pantheon the name Mary Lou Williams, pianist, composer, and arranger who died in 1981 at the age of 71 - and who, for much of her life was unsung –and a treasure trove awaits. Not only did Williams break ground as a black woman, but hers was a sumptuous voice so unique that Ellington deemed her "perpetually contemporary." Indeed, Williams' provocative body of work, specifically her wedding of jazz with religion, did not so much as speak to the heart and soul of mankind, but crooned with an uncanny modernism still resonating today.
Born in 1910 in Atlanta, Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, a piano prodigy with perfect pitch, was raised in Pittsburgh. Making her professional debut at age 12 as Mary Lou Burley (her stepfather's name), the "little piano girl" began tickling the ivories in the big band Buzz and Harris Revue. In 1925, Williams joined a group led by saxophonist John Williams, whom she subsequently married, before the couple trekked to Oklahoma, hooking up with Andy Kirk's band, where Williams was principal arranger for 11 years. By the late 1930s she was also arranging for jazz greats that included Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Goodman, for whom she wrote the boogie-woogie smash, Roll 'Em.
In a word, Williams sizzled, though this heat came at a price. After leaving Kirk, where she was granted permanent bandmember status only after Kirk's keyboardist proved flaky, she headed to New York in 1942, forming a group with her second husband, trumpeter Shorty Baker. Despite a musical brand of fertile harmonic inventions (Ellington recorded her Trumpet No End, in 1946), and her embrace of bebop (Waltz Boogie, an early stab at adapting jazz to nonduple meters was recorded with her woman's band, GirlStars), Williams' career was fraught with frustrations. The first of many large compositions, her 1945 Zodiac Suite received a mediocre reception; she was also underpaid and under recognized for her prodigious composing-arranging skills. Yearning to be taken more seriously, the boogie-woogie queen, who hung out with younger New York jazz royalty such as Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, eventually relocated to Europe.
In 1954, two years into her sojourn, Williams walked off a Paris stage, abandoning jazz for religion. Converting to Catholicism, she obsessed to the point where she prayed by name for 1,000 people daily. But jazz, embedded in her DNA, inevitably called, prompting Williams' return to musicmaking in 1957, where a wealth of sacred compositions poured forth. Included were 1964's St. Martin de Porres (Black Christ of the Andes), and three complete masses, notably Music for Peace or Mary Lou's Mass. Papally commissioned and recorded in 1970 on her label, Mary Records, the 15-part opus was recently reissued and produced by Father Peter O'Brien, who met Williams in 1964 and later became her manager and executor of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. The profundity of this hybrid work, a spiritual stew with blues-based funk, swing, gospel, and even rock influences, reflects the tumult of the era. Its musical message of brotherhood is still blowing minds today (think rapper Kanye West's Grammy® Award-winning song, Jesus Walks). In The Lord Says, Williams lets rip with a rousing call-and-response setting evocative of the Renaissance, but with a silky solo reminiscent of an Alicia Keys riff. Surprise dominates the Sanctus, as a rubato introduction precedes a saucy bossa nova beat, its dotted rhythms thrumming with the aural soul of early Moby. Our Father offers a running bass line that underscores the choir before the voices make mighty with a high F, and in Act of Contrition, a solo bass clarinet accompanies the words, "O, my God, I detest all the sins of my life." Listen for a Coltranesque modality oozing through Praise the Lord/Come Holy Spirit (from Psalms 148 and 150), a swinging call-to-arms enhanced by an African drum.
With St Martin de Porres, a six-and-a-half minute choral hymn that celebrates the Peruvian holy man of interracial justice, Williams vamps with jazz harmonies and seductive rhythms made more potent by a brief beautiful piano interlude. The lighter, It Is Always Spring (written by Len Thomas and arranged by Mary Lou Williams), born from Williams' interest in pygmies and their ability to move between the head and chest voice, defies categorization as it charms, while poetry reigns in the a capella, Tell Him Not To Talk Too Long. A response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, jr. this resolute yet melancholic jazz spiritual offers a humming section that morphs into a plea for closure, instructions on death, hauntingly delivered.
Williams' own death from cancer followed a productive decade of recordings, concerts, and teaching at Duke University. A rare gift to the world, Williams lives on in the music that continues to spread joy to all who perform, hear and share what might best be summed up as notes from God.