Many cities can lay claim to jazz legend Mary Lou Williams. Without a doubt, Kansas City lays a prime claim. Because it was here she first met fame, as The Lady Who Swings the Band, as pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy from 1929 to 1942.
Mary Lou Williams died of cancer in 1981. Today would have been her 100th birthday.
In his autobiography, Twenty Years on Wheels, Andy Kirk wrote of the audition for his band's first recording contract:
“We were all set up and ready except for Marion Jackson, our pianist. Nobody seemed to know where he was. Things were getting tense. We'd have to start soon or blow it. [Saxophonist] John Williams said, ‘How about getting Prelude?’ Prelude was our name for his wife, Mary Lou. When John first came to the band he had asked me to hear her play. I did and agreed with him that she was a fine pianist, but we already had one that met our requirements. And we were making a lot of road trips and I always thought doing one-nighters would be hard on a woman. But this was an emergency. I told John, OK. When Mary Lou came in and sat down at the piano to audition with us, no one had the wildest idea she'd be a big factor in our landing an excellent two-year recording contract, or, wilder yet, that she would make jazz history.”
Andy also offered these insights:
“Recordings in the 1930s were made on wax. There'd be A, B, and C wax. On our Chicago sessions the A & R man supervising the date would say, ‘All right, let's do some with the girl and the rhythm section.’ They'd make a master pressing – the A wax. It would eventually wear out, then they'd have to go to the B or C wax. Mary Lou would of course be improvising on all three. So when the B or C sides came out people who bought them would say, ‘That doesn't sound the way she did before.’
“Of course not. Her ideas were new all the time.
“From the start she wanted to write. She would have certain chords in her mind but she didn't at first know how to voice them. She had a good ear and tried to write down what she heard. If she wasn't out all night at the jazz clubs in Kansas City, listening and getting ideas, she'd be sitting at the foot of her bed, legs crossed like an Indian, just writing and writing, while John was sleeping. Sometimes she'd stay up all night working at her arrangements. She'd try one thing, then another, get mad, and start over. As time went on she learned voicing for the different horns from things I showed her from some arrangements I'd bought.”
A collection of links to online NPR stories and recordings of and by Mary Lou Williams is on their jazz blog, here. Specifically, NPR's profile aired this morning can be found here.
Happy birthday, Mary Lou Williams.