Explore the music of Mary Lou Williams [Video]

Included in this week’s mix is a track by Mary Lou Williams, a much under-appreciated jazz pianist, composer and arranger. Although often not frequently mentioned as a jazz great, Williams was revered as one of the most influential jazz composers by many of her peers. Composing for both Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman in the swing era and then with the arrival of be-bop in the 40s she was writing tunes such as ‘In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee’ for Dizzy Gillespie. 

Williams was also a great mentor to many jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. She was reported as having kept her apartment door open when she was out for the likes of Thelonius Monk to come and compose on her piano. 

Williams’ compositions were not just limited to other people’s bands however. She famously composed many pieces for Andy Kirk’s band in which her husband played sax and she later played piano. In 1945, Mary wrote The Zodiac Suite which consisted of a composition for each of the astrological star signs which she performed with the New York Philharmonic. 

In 1954 Mary went through a religious conversion to catholicism after apparently leaving a parisian club and her entire music career behind due to being so upset with the ”greed, selfishness and envy” that impinged on her music. Although initially she then spent her life secluded from music she was persuaded by Dizzy Gillespie and two priests, the Revs. John F. Crowley and Anthony Woods to return to writing and performing. 

Mary’s first spiritual work consisted of an album inspired by the recently canonised St. Martin de Porres called Black Christ of the Andes. This was a big change in Williams’ composition style and led her on to writing three masses, the last of which was choreographed by African-American dancer, director, choreographer, and activist Alvin Ailey. This mass later became the first ever jazz performance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

Only recently with the publication of a book and film based on her life has Mary Lou started to posthumously achieve the the wider recognition she deserves.

Here is a performance by Mary later in her career with Saxophonist Stan Getz showing just why her swinging playing was so admired: