The average jazz listener is likely to come up short if asked to name the jazz pianist who began their musical career in the 1920s and, aside from a couple breaks, didn’t stop performing until their death in 1981; who started out playing stride piano and writing big band arrangements; who played a role in helping many of the bebop players solidify their concepts; who encouraged the gospel of jazz – often literally – in both Europe and the U.S.; and who continually refined their approach to the music, including ideas that would even encompass events as far out as performing a controversial 1977 two-piano concert alongside unrepentant avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. A good (though incorrect) guess would be Duke Ellington, who covers most of the time span in question, but the correct answer is the underappreciated jazz great Mary Lou Williams.
Williams began playing piano at age 6 and by the time she was 19 she was writing arrangements for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy in Kansas City (and later New York), a gig she held until the early 40s when she began playing matron to the rising stars of bebop. From an interview for Melody Maker she noted "During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later." Anyone who refers to Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell (to name only three of the musicians she coached and traded ideas with) “the kids” deserves a much greater status than Williams currently holds. But she didn’t just teach them, she took their ideas to heart and in her mid-40s work – notably 1945’s Zodiac Suite – you can hear bebop’s influence on her own playing.
In 1952, Williams began performing and living in Europe for two years, going on a hiatus from performing music upon her return to the States to focus on charity work within the Roman Catholic Church – specifically on helping addicted musicians kick drugs and return to performing. But by the late 50s, at the urging of two priests and Dizzy Gillespie, she returned to playing and before long was creating some of the most creative work of her career, blending her spiritual leanings with jazz, including two modernist masterworks: Mary Lou’s Mass and Black Christ of the Andes, both of which show an enormous grasp of different styles of music and a readiness to make her music challenging when she saw fit to do so.
After focusing mainly on live performances and working with children’s choirs throughout the rest of the 1960s the 70s found her recording in earnest, starting with the 1974 release, Zoning. It’s a great record, but that’s not all it is – like much of Williams’ latter-day work, this record encompasses a history of jazz that she was present for at every turn. Most of the record finds her working in one of two trios – a traditional piano-bass-drums group and contrasting with that a piano-bass-congas group – though on some cuts she plays solo, or in duo with one of the trio players. And on a couple cuts, she looks forward to her live date with Cecil Taylor by featuring a second pianist (Zita Carno) alongside her, creating some of the loosest, freest, and most abstract music on the record. It opens easy enough though, with the funky, driving bonus track “Syl-O-Gism” which was not on the original album. In listening, it’s difficult to imagine that anything but time constraints kept this off the record’s initial release. It’s followed immediately by Dizzy Gillespie’s lovely, reflective “Olinga,” featuring the same trio instrumentation, and that is in turn followed by “Medi II” which pushes the tempo back up to a rocketing speed. Williams’ interfacing with the bop crowd is readily evident in her playing here. The other bonus cut “Gloria” is the piano-bass-drums alternate version of the tune that occurs later in the disc and again – quality is not in question; it can only be the physical limitations of putting music on an LP that kept this slower version of the tune off the original release. Two dual-piano tracks follow: “Intermission” finds Williams and Carno working in unison before stretching out on this fragmentary and impressionistic tune, but the oddly-titled “Zoning Fungus” opens with a very loose and abstract pianos-only intro before the rhythm section drops in a tight groove for them to work against. The record is then given over to two piano/bass duos, with Mary Lou and Bob Cranshaw playing the lovely “Holy Ghost” and the bluesier and sometimes mildly dissonant “Medi I.” The bluesiness of “Medi I” gives way to the slow, funky, in the pocket groove of “Rosa Mae” which in turn leads to the impressionistic solo piano ballad “Ghost of Love.” The three tracks that close out the record all feature the piano-bass-congas trio, starting with the fastest number here: “Praise the Lord,” in which the rhythm section sets up a fast tempo then Williams drops into it and effortlessly finds her place. She’s not often given to showy runs in her solos, preferring instead to hitting the right note or phrase at exactly the right time – not unlike that “kid” Monk that she used to talk with. The originally released version of “Gloria” follows, faster than the earlier one on the album, and every bit as good and fun. The record closes with “Play It Momma,” a slow groover that is – as usual – funky and showcases Williams’ exquisite timing. A perfect ending to a great album.
Williams would make more records through the remainder of the 1970s (many of them worth seeking out), teach music at Duke University, perform at the White House, create the Mary Lou Williams Foundation to help the underprivileged and young find their way to jazz, and then pass away in 1981 of bladder cancer. In her biography Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams she would sum up her long and accomplished life with this simple statement that says it better than anything I could add: "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."
- Patrick Brown