Mary Lou Williams
In early 1979 a friend at the Rhymes alerted me to the fact that Mary Lou Williams was soon to play in New York City. One Sunday afternoon I went to see and hear her play in the Garden Room Restaurant of Abraham & Strauss (a department store chain). I was the first one in when they opened and recognized Mary Lou sitting over at a table in the corner (it wasn't like a real club where the artist had their own dressing room to hang out in before the show). I went over and introduced myself as an avid fan and started to talk with her, telling how I played a little and how she was my favorite pianist. She was 68 years old at this point and seemed very alert. As soon as she saw me making my way over to her she focused on me completely and talked with me as if she had always known me. I asked her to sign a few of her albums I'd brought and also -- most importantly -- got her address at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she was a full-time professor.
Soon some people came over that obviously were old friends. I slipped away and found myself a table right behind the piano. She played two sets but the piano was noticeably out of tune. I thought it was real funky that they hadn't seen fit to tune it properly before her performance. I noticed she had an ace bandage on her left wrist and thought her playing sounded not as strong or driving as on her most recent album, My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me, recorded in December of 1977. Later I discovered she had perfect pitch and that it was very unsettling for her to play a piano not in good tune at concert pitch so I understood better the real reason why she had sounded less than stellar playing that day.
Back in New Haven I was inspired by my exposure to one of America's living treasures to work on some more transcribing, as well as to send a letter to Mary Lou telling her how much I had loved seeing her and hearing her play. I also included my transcription of "Rosa Mae." She sent a very encouraging reply on March 8th and closed by saying, "wish it possible for you to extract more of my solos". Being exceedingly excited by this I continued to work on what I had been doing with "Dirge" and the beginning of the title track, "My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me."
Then matters were escalated out of my control when I was fired from Rhymes on March 25, for talking too much. I had been complaining to one of the record company reps about how we just were not able to keep all the records we should have in stock because of our random, scattered finances and how it was frustrating to have to tell people that we were out whatever-it-was they were looking for but that we did hope to be getting it back later on....
The top brass had told me time and again that Rhymes business was Rhymes business and nobody else had any business knowing that business, so I was out on the street the next day. At the time I was completely in shock because I hadn't been expecting that (of course -- else I would have finally "gotten the message" and shut up) and didn't have much money. (In time I discovered they were going to give me a pink slip which would say I had been laid off for lack of work so I could get unemployment which saved me, but at the time I didn't know this and felt terrible.)
Along with unemployment I worked under-the-table at a kinder care place taking care of children ages five to nine. Being with the kids was a relief in many ways and I began to think of moving back to California. This seemed like a good plan until I received a reply in mid-April to a second letter I had written to Mary Lou in which I had included the beginning of her soulful tune "Dirge Blues" [September 2004: See the transcription excerpt of the song's opening in DavesPianoLessons.com/transcriptions.html]. I had been trying to transcribe it and had included some questions about the meter and tempo as well as telling her about my idea of moving back to the west coast. (Later she told me how she had written this dirge only a few days before JFK was murdered during which time she had felt a deep, deep sadness without knowing why. This ability to sense premonitions of events in the near future was something she experienced more than once and was an indication of an extremely well-developed intuitive self.) It was so overwhelming to me I must include it here in its entirety:
Hey! You should really persue (sic) your musical career -- There are not many young musicians out here who can hear the way you do -- snap! smile -- Give up your other ideas about Calif -- Try to register here in the fall. The school does get jobs (Theres a special program) When God gives you a talent stick with it. If you attended Berkeley (sic) & other schools -- You should drop all schools `cept to study composition etc. Jazz cannot be taught out of books (even Avant Guarde (sic)) Lessons with me will be 20.00 per hr (usually 35.00) You are talented & will be throwing your talent away -- Don't be foolish -- Write Mr. Frank Tirro (Durham NC) Music Dept -- Duke UniversityNeedless to say I was knocked out by her enthusiasm and encouraging words so I altered my plans accordingly to make it to Durham when she returned there in the fall from her pending summer-to-be in New York City.
P.S. Inquire -- before Sept -- We had over 750 kids to register for my class -- now have 196 -- Do so immediately -- Williams
I went back to California for the summer and then flew to the Raleigh/Durham airport on the night of August 31st. Mary Lou had just come home from a being in the hospital at Duke Medical Center and I was able to talk with her by fown as soon as I got to town. With Mark, a poli-sci senior who had been studying with Mary Lou, I found a house to live in two blocks from the corner of campus where the music building was. I also got a part-time job 4 hours in the morning way out on the other side of west campus tending goats, ducks and deer at some sort of animal facility.
I settled into a schedule very soon after that: up first thing to go to work (sometimes going swimming before work), back for lunch and then to the music building for practice (on M, W, F), or for Mary Lou's class (Tu, Th) and then going to practice after class. I took lessons with her every week if she wasn't too busy with other things. After the first one which was in the evening, she invited me back to the kitchen for some watermelon and we had a wonderful conversation about music and the people she'd known (or at least a few of them -- she had known and worked with practically everyone in the jazz world).
The jazz class was good even though there were some kids who signed up simply because it was supposed to be an easy grade and they would sit up in the back mumbling. I sat in the front row and listened to Father Peter O'Brien (a white Catholic priest who was her manager and pulled a lot of the load for the class) talk about music and play a lot of records illustrating what he was saying for the first half of class. Then Mary Lou would come in and sit at the piano and play and teach us to sing a lot of her songs (she said the only way to learn about music was to have it come from inside and to sing it out). I loved to listen to her playing as well as singing. It was such an indescribable blessing to drink in such a rich pure dose of her sounds in this manner -- live four feet away from where her fingers were dancing -- twice a week like that, plus invariably getting a little of the same during my piano lessons.
Soon after I arrived I was at her house one evening and we had already worked a little on the piano. Then she brought our a copy of her Solo Recital 1978 Montreux album that had been recently released and we listened to some of the songs. When we got to "Honeysuckle Rose" she was not especially pleased with the way she had played it saying she felt it was too fast and should have been played more slowly. I was struck by this instance of her own exacting self-standards, of what she did or didn't like in her own performance.
She would close her eyes much of the time while playing. At one point when we were talking at her house she remarked, "When I close my eyes I'm gone". One of the many staggering-to-me aspects of her playing was that she never looked at her hands -- and they were moving all over the place! It was clear that long ago, she had physically become one with the instrument, and that there was not one iota of energy being siphoned off from her creative expression by any of the technical issues I've always been dogged and constrained by.
Mary Lou's style is steeped thru-and-thru with a fundamental bluesiness as well as a powerful percussive element. Laid on top of this is a gift for improvisational expression unique in the way she arranged and especially composed music. She would compose complete, fully-developed tunes while playing. The range of style and mood traversed in her own compositions was extraordinarily diverse and rich in its texture, depth, and feeling.
So inspired did I become by exposure to this legendary Giant of Jazz that I began to pick out two complete songs from My Mama Pinned A Rose On Me: "No Title Blues", and "J.B.'s Waltz". I had loved both of these for as long as I'd heard them. But up to that point I hadn't been able to summon the determination to sit down and take as long as necessary to write them out. The difficult part was notating the songs because of the discipline and tenacity required. Learning them afterwards was a great joy since the structure of the recording was now articulated as a written score. By October I was getting in a minimum of 4 hours a day practice. In November I was able to increase this to 5. I had never been able to consistently play that much at anytime in the past and it felt great.
Throughout the fall the time spent with Mary Lou was the radiant center of my world. She lived in a two-story house and had two pianos: a new Yamaha grand in the living room which someone had given her, and a spinet across the front hall in a smaller room which is where we did the lessons. We did practically everything on the spinet; I hardly ever saw her play the Yamaha. Mary Lou would tend to be somewhat short-tempered at times during the lessons. As Nina (then living in Bwoston) said at one point, "I doubt Mary Lou would get so riled up if she didn't think you had the potential and were capable of going further."
I did get the message, repeatedly, that she felt I had the goods. Inviting me to come study with her was of course a crystal clear message. Then once there, the time and attention -- and at times exasperation she gave vent to -- during my lessons. She would also at times make collared greens and hush puppies and we'd eat at her breakfast table while she'd hold forth as a living encyclopedia describing the people who'd created the musical idiom called "jazz". As Duke more accurately put it in Music is My Mistress,You probably heard of the word `jazz.' It's all right if that is the way you understand or prefer it. We stopped using the word in 1943, and we much prefer to call it the American Idiom, or the Music of Freedom of Expression." [p. 309]I looked for ways I could increase the time being with Mary Lou. The most successful avenue was that I began to clean her house and thus could spend quite a long bit of a given day with her there. During these extended periods of time I began to see her moods shifting continually and could better appreciate and understand her tendency to lose her temper with me. She had been thru and endured so much as a black woman in an essentially black man's field but it never deterred her from giving so much of herself to her music and all those she played with and loved so deeply.
Her marvelous 1978 recording on Folkways Records, The History Of Jazz, made in her New York City apartment by herself at the piano with her Tandberg tape recorder, included a rich "conversation" she conducted with you-the-listener about this music and its rich, rich heritage. At the end she obliquely referred to her own personal travails with the words,It was my pleasure to bring you thru the history of Jazz. You may not realize this but you're lucky. On the other hand, to bring this history to you I had to go thru muck and mud.Born Mary Elfrieda Winn in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910, Mary Lou had grown up in Pittsburgh after her family moved there when she was 5 or 6 and was exposed to all kinds of music. Known around town as "the little piano girl", Mary Lou was often heard at private parties including those of the Mellons and the Olivers, well before she was ten years old. She married twice, first to alto saxophonist John Williams and later to trumpeter Harold (Shorty) Baker. "Yet she says of both husbands and all other encounters, ``I didn't marry men. I married horns. After about two weeks of marriage, I was ready to get up and write some music. I was in love with Ben Webster longer than anybody, and that was about a month!'' " [Ebony, Oct. 1979, p.60]
It was apparent to me that although she never had children herself, she bore something of equal mystery and limitlessness in and thru her music. As with other mothers who have and raise children, hers manifested and contained the depth and richness of an extremely unique consciousness and spirit in an extraordinarily uncommon form and expression.
Mary Lou was very big on teaching people "the history" centering on all the musical eras and styles from the Spirituals and Work Songs sung by the slaves, to Ragtime, Old-Fashioned Slow Blues/Ballad, Fast Blues, Boogie Woogie, the Swing Era, particularly Kansas City Swing, BeBop, Modern, and Avante Garde. She herself was unique in the history of the Music of Freedom of Expression as she was trained to play all styles beginning as a child prodigy at age three on her Mother's lap. She lived thru all the eras and was an unrivaled composer, arranger, and innovator, as well as a top, bar none, pianist and performer.
Like Duke, she knew and worked with all the greats and was one of the few people who lived thru, played, and was part of all the eras of this unique American Idiom form of music. Again, taking a page from Music is My Mistress,Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead thruout her career. She did one of our most important arrangements on Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," which we recorded as "Trumpet No End," and it has always been one of our standard high spots. Much of her time is now devoted to work in the religious field, but her music retains -- and maintains -- a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul. [p.169]Reading the above the first time in 1976 in Eugene, the sense of her specialness had always stayed with me waiting for the time when opportunity would present the chance to study with her as I was doing on the cusp of the decade of the eighties.
Up to the beginning of December things had gone exceedingly well. But I switched jobs to a graveyard shift as a radio operator at the Duke Public Safety Office Friday and Saturday nights and, altho this provided enuff money, I had never tried to work those hours before and it tended to mess my up my head. Then skool let out for Christmas vacation and the "town" I had been interacting with became very empty. I went to visit Barbara Crouse, a good friend of the fam'blee, in Indianapolis for five daze. But when I returned, I found that Mary Lou was back in the hospital where tests were being done because she was going to need to have surgery. I visited her a fair amount in her hospital room and we had some long talks. But she was relatively inaccessible and I was at a loss as to how to regain my musical momentum.
I never had the sort of unquenchable drive I felt all the people whom I idolized lived their whole lives expressing. Also I've always found it essential to have others in the locale where I'm living to whom I can share a deep closeness with wholly independent of the sort one has in a physical relationship with another special person. I had not met anyone in Durham with whom I was able to establish such a rapport. I had always been inclined to pour my soul out to such special others and prior to that had been able to find people to share the depth of my interior with. Since arriving in Durham in September, except for the five daze with Barbara, I had never gone that long without having someone around I could confide in.
With Mary Lou engaged in attending to her own physical needs I found myself lost and couldn't re-ignite my motivation to proceed with my practicing. After her operation Mary Lou was slowly convalescing in the hospital (and would stay there until the middle of March) so there was no music class and very limited musical exposure to her.
Sometime in the second week of February I "caved in". A block away from home, I was walking down a sidewalk with a very thin covering of snow from the night before on top of some ice, and all of a sudden I started running along and slipped onto my ass slapping both my hands down hard on the ground. The next day at the student health center I learned I had fractured the fourth metacarpel in my right hand's palm and wore a cast on that hand and lower arm for the next four-and-a-half weeks.
I never really got back to any concerted kind of practice schedule. Mary Lou went home later in March and finally was able to make it back to her class by the end of the month. I had a few more lessons with her then and at the beginning of April but she left town to go play in Brazil for a few days and was supposed to be back a week-and-a-half later after she had spent a some time in New York City. It was the last time I ever saw her. I struggled thru April with a job as a laborer for a small contractor guy but he had to let me go at month's end.
At my wits and money's end I called brother Steve. He said it looked as if the writing was on the wall (i had been expecting Mary Lou back for about 3 weeks and had no word of where she was) and that the Bolinas skool was going to have a huge construction project consisting of nine new buildings (virtually an entire new skool) starting in June. He urged me to come back and try to get a job on it. I didn't need much more encouragement and two days later boarded a bus back to California.
Despite such a sad-sounding "wind down" for the last four months of my time in Durham, I have all ways felt exceedingly blessed by the gifts imparted during this period with Mary Lou. Duke understood her being like "soul on soul" as well as his apprehension of the fact that she always had a truly timeless standard of quality in her own playing. For those not familiar with her music, I cannot strongly enuff offer my recommendation to find and explore her recordings.
One of the projects on "the list" for 1997 is to create a collection about her on ratical inside http://www.ratical.org/MaryLouWilliams/. For now, I give in to my own ego and include there my greatest claim-to-fame: an article from the December 7, 1979 issue of Books & Arts with its cover story being "Mary Lou Williams: love in jazz", which had, as its one accompanying photo, an image of me watching her showing "how it's supposed to go".
A group of us had stayed after class that day and the photographer for this feature was there snapping away. If I remember correctly she suggested I play something so I started in with the version of "Roll 'Em" from Live at the Cookery I'd been transcribing at that point. I wasn't thru the 8-bar intro before she came over saying something like, "That's not right. Let me show you how it's supposed to go." As the photo was imaged I was in the midst of loving seeing the "mystery revealed" of every note she was playing, while at the same time trying desperately to commit the mechanics of the aural sequence to photographic mem'rhey -- something I am not good at. I can take a recording of some piano and make a reasonable stab at scoring it out, but simply seeing someone play something right there live in the moment and then being able to recount it to myself afterwards was another matter.
The issue came out in December. Before I ever saw it I was in the music building before or after class one day when Mary came up huffing about how I was always pushing my way into everything. I was mystified but later when I saw the article I realized she had felt somehow taken advantage of. From this, I gained another miniscule glimmer into how challenging her and other musician's professional existence must be and the toll it takes in terms of wearing down one's natural inclination to trust others and trust that uni verse will provide for and take care of all our needs.
Throughout my entire time in Durham I felt the strangest mystery of all was why there were no others like myself who had found their own way there via whatever route, to likewise study with such a true, living legend Jazz Giant as Mary Lou Williams. It always boggled my mind that out of everyone on Earth at that moment, no one else had discovered their own similar path to her door nor was now exploring the possibility of pursuing a musical path with the guidance of such a stellar member of that group of people present during and participating in so much of the creation of the Music of Freedom of Expression.
Mary returned close to the end of May and wrote me. We shared more correspondence thru that fall. One day in March I was visiting her while she was convalescing in the hospital after I'd gotten the cast off my right hand and could play again. A piano had been rolled into her room and I had played the version of "No Title Blues" I'd transcribed and worked up. She was very pleased, telling someone else there, "Look, he's done the ``No-Name Blues!'' " She wrote me saying I would make a great music manuscript copyist (transcribing whatever from recordings) and I have kept going with that, although not for my livelihood which she indicated I could make a reasonable income from.
The last letter I received from her was dated September 4, 1980. She had written, "Practice & do a great piano -- your timing is better. I'll always tell you what's good or bad, Only way to teach it."
Mary Lou died next May from cancer just after her seventy-first birthday. She had been fighting it while I was there and stayed incredibly engaged right up to the end, playing, teaching, sharing, and loving. I don't know what would have happened if she had returned before I left in May of 1980. It's certainly possible I would have stuck around with her there. She was a unique teacher for me in so many facets of life and living. I was blessed beyond compare to have had the chance to know Mary Lou and drink at the fountain of life with her. Some aspect of her will always live on inside. Perhaps I will be able to serve as some kind of beacon to emphasize and ignite in others the awareness of and love for the music she created and thru which she expressed her own inimitable experience of being.