Marian McPartland in Conversation with Mary Lou Williams


Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams in 1978, about 14 years after the two spoke for “Mary Lou Williams: Into The Sun,” which originally was published in DownBeat on Aug. 27, 1964.

(Photo: Courtesy of South Carolina Educational Television)

Here is a woman who is conscientious, introspective, sensitive, a woman who, with her quiet manner and at times almost brusque, noncommittal way of speaking, has been misunderstood, thought to be lacking in warmth and compassion. The reverse is true. She feels keenly the various factions, contradictions, inequalities of the music business, wants to help people, to give of herself. A woman vulnerable. A woman hurt so many times she tends to withdraw from, and be suspicious of, others, unless she knows them well. She has an uncanny way of stripping them of any façade, of cutting through the deceit and shallowness of the sycophants. In many ways she is still confused, still searching, still figuring things out for herself, and in this she has been helped a great deal by her friend, Rev. Anthony Woods.

“I have heard her discuss the aesthetics of music with great penetration. She seems to have an understanding of what is good, of what is beautiful,” Woods said. “She thinks that jazz is becoming superficial, that it’s losing its spiritual feeling. She seems to be aware of a great deal of falsity and affectation, that people are not telling the truth, not saying what they really mean. In her uncomplicated way, she can’t understand how anybody can’t be sincere.”

Several years ago, she started a thrift shop, the proceeds from which go into her Bel Canto Foundation, which she established to help needy musicians. Now more and more people have begun to hear about it and are giving her gifts of clothing and other donations. Besides these activities, much of Mary Lou’s time is taken up with writing and arranging, plus her daily attendance at mass and care of her sister’s little boy, who usually has the run of her apartment.

Being so busy does not seem to faze her, but it has been a long time since she has “come out” to play in public. She has made a few sporadic appearances in the past few years—twice at New York City’s Wells’ Supper Club and once each at the Embers and the Composer (where I worked opposite her), plus the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. These engagements have been of short duration and have not been too satisfying to her. She seems to feel the pressures of a musician’s life keenly, to become disillusioned, and then, as she expresses it, “goes back in”—back to her other world, to her apartment, to write, teach and pray.

During her long stays at home, Mary Lou’s talent certainly has not been lying fallow. She has composed a poignant minor blues she calls “Dirge Blues,” which she wrote at the time of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. She is skillful in creating a mood—the feeling of this piece is tragic and gloomy. In its simplicity, it is very touching. She has put out an extended-play record on her own label, Mary Records, consisting of three tunes, arranged for 16 voices and her trio: “Summertime,” “The Devil” and “St. Martin de Porres.” The last tune, with a lyric by Woods, achieves an airy, ethereal quality by its voice blending. She has made a single, also on her own label, of “My Blue Heaven.” She makes this warhorse like new again, with a light, witty, Latin-based treatment. Obviously, she has lost none of her powers of inventiveness. One has only to listen to her recordings of years ago, “Froggy Bottom,” “Roll ’Em” and “Cloudy,” to realize how her style has evolved with the years and how she has kept her playing and her thinking contemporary.

She composed one of the first (if not the first) jazz waltzes—“Mary’s Waltz”—many years ago, yet she has never got the proper credit or recognition for this or for any of her several innovations that have been brought to the fore later by other musicians. Her importance, her influence, cannot be denied. She has written many beautiful tunes that are seldom heard, seldom recorded.

It has been said of Mary Lou Williams that she plays in clichés, but she has so much to offer of her own that I feel that her occasional use of cliché is more tongue-in-cheek commentary than lack of inventiveness. She has been labeled by some a fanatic. To others, she is only an extremely dedicated musician. Yet perhaps there is something of the fanatic in her, as seen in her constant search for musicians with whom she can be compatible—in a way, she reminds one of a mother with her children, alternately scolding or praising them, trying to teach them, trying to instill her beliefs in them, expecting great things of them. Yet it is said too that she is a hard taskmistress, demanding and intolerant.

“Anything you are shows up in your music ... .”

Her feelings about the new freedom in jazz cannot quite be concealed, though she tries to be noncommittal.

“I just haven’t got it figured out,” she said. “To each his own, I guess, but if I can’t hear chords … some sort of melody … well, if they think they’re giving out a good sound, that’s their business. Maybe they think we’re squares? Or else it’s some sort of protest? Take a guy like Coltrane: He knows what he’s doing. But these people without a knowledge of music, it’s like—well, it’s a very neurotic world. People are nervous. Seems like everyone I know is nervous. It must be the pressures of the world. Musicians are very sensitive, and they really don’t know what to do about it. I don’t mean they’re nervous about playing, but in their lives. I try to act relaxed because that’s been my training, but I’m more nervous than anyone you ever knew—inside. Oh, I get mad, sometimes, but I expel it, get it out right away.”

When one is discussing Mary Lou with other musicians, her sense of time always prompts admiration.

“I’ve heard her a few times at the Hickory House, and I’m amazed at her rhythmic approach more than anything else,” said fellow pianist Billy Taylor. “She has the most consistent way of swinging; even with a rhythm section that isn’t quite hanging together, she can make it swing, and this is really remarkable. It seems that no matter what’s going on around her, she can get this thing going. When in doubt—swing! As a pianist, I naturally listen a lot to the rhythm section, and sometimes I’ll notice that they’re not together, and I’ll think to myself, ‘Come on!—let’s give her some support,’ but she’ll be making it anyway. Not as many jazz pianists have this ability as do other instrumentalists. I mean this rhythmic propulsion. She’s not like an Erroll Garner or an Oscar Peterson, who overpower the rhythm section. On the contrary, she plays so subtly she seems to be able to isolate herself and swing, though the others may not be. Considering all the psychological things that go into swinging, she’s even more remarkable. You could wake her up out of a dead sleep, and she’d start swinging without even thinking about it.

“Mary Lou is looking for perfection. On the rare occasions when she had this chemical thing going that can happen between three people, she’s been so excited by it that she wants it all the time. Swinging is so natural to her that she can’t understand why it isn’t necessarily natural to everybody all the time. She figures that they can do it, but they won’t; she thinks to herself, ‘Anybody I hire should be able to do this, so why don’t they?’ Most people associate the verb ‘to swing’ with the degree of loudness that they attain, but she refutes it—she’ll take something pianissimo and swing just as hard as if it were double forte. She’s one of the very few people I know that can do this, consistently swing in any context.”

“Anything you are shows up in your music ... .”

“She lives in a world all her own, a dream world, and she doesn’t want anything to spoil it,” said her longtime friend and admirer, Hickory House press agent Joe Morgan. “She inspires a great devotion in people—she has many followers, but there are just as many people who look at her askance because they cannot understand her high artistic level. She is so dedicated, and the fact that her standards are high makes her very hard to please. In her accompaniment she wants to hear certain changes behind her, certain lines, certain rhythms, and it’s difficult for a strongly individualistic bass player or drummer, with ideas of his own, to conform to her standards. But her motive, her burning desire is for creation. In a way, she’s like a little child with a doll house, setting up house in the piano, like a little girl on her own chair, not even thinking about what is going on around her. Sometimes, she doesn’t hear what you’re saying—doesn’t even see you—because her mind is a million miles away. People don’t understand that if she doesn’t speak to them, she doesn’t mean to be rude ... .”

Mary Lou herself said, “When people tell me that I’m playing good, and I don’t think I am, I want to run away from them, not speak to them.”

Being so intensely self-critical, she has scant regard for musicians who, in her opinion, lack sufficient dedication to their instruments.

“So many musicians nowadays push too hard, spread themselves too thin, doing all kinds of things when they should be home practicing,” she said. “People who push that hard never really get anywhere, but if you know your instrument, well, you can lay back and let someone pick you out. If you’re doing too many things, there’s no chance for your creativeness to come through.

“When the rhythm section starts composing things on the stand, they’ll push me into composing. But if they are not together, you must let them walk, let them play by themselves, to find out where they are. Then when they’re really tight, you come in and play. But if they’re still not making it, then play another tune, play a ballad. When you hear me play chimes, it’s because the rhythm isn’t right, and you’ve got to bring a section together to let them hear themselves. But if, after this, they still don’t make it, then I’ll start cussing!

“Now that I’m out here, I’m beginning to like it. I haven’t been late for the job, and I haven’t wanted to leave, and that’s unusual for me. Sometimes in the past, I’ve got fed up, and I would walk out and say, ‘You better get yourself another piano player.’ But this time it’s fun for me. Sometimes, I’m tired, but I haven’t had that feeling of wanting to give up. ... I think this time that I’m out here to stay.”

It is almost as if she sees herself emerging from darkness into the sunlight, to bask in the warmth of feeling generated by friends, admirers and family. Gazing out over the piano, her pleasure in playing comes through clearly. DB

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