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Music: Pianist’s Return

3 minute read

The couples drifting into the pink twilight of a Manhattan nightspot called The Composer last week heard a fine, familiar sound, saw a familiar figure softly spotlighted on the free-form bandstand. The woman with the flat-planed, Mayan-like face was Mary Lou Williams, at 47 still one of the finest jazz musicians who ever sat at a piano. For Mary Lou it marked the end of a three-year retreat from the jazz world.

In the summer of 1954, fresh from a triumphant solo swing about Europe, Mary Lou was playing to capacity crowds in a Paris jazz spot when, without warning, she walked away from the job. She was fed up, she said, with the jungle conditions of the jazz business. If the reaction seemed out of character for a .seasoned trouper (she had jammed with the likes of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians by the time she was 14), it had been a long time coming. “I was bitter,” she recalls, “that nobody seemed to care about good music any more. The club owners only wanted music that sells good.”

Play & Pray. When Mary Lou returned to the U.S. late in 1954, she moved back into her three-room Manhattan apartment and scarcely ever looked at the piano. “I’d sit down and play one chord, and I couldn’t stand it. There just wasn’t nothing inside me.” Mary Lou lived on her quarterly ASCAP check (about $300), on occasional royalties from old records, and on credit, but she filled her small apartment with cots and put up dozens of down-at-the-heel Harlem jazz musicians. She often prayed at the church of Our Lady of Lourdes a few blocks away (“I didn’t know what else to do”).

Shortly before Mary Lou was received into the Roman Catholic Church last spring, Lorraine (Mrs. Dizzy) Gillespie mentioned her name to a Boston priest, Father John Crowley, a former sax player. He called Mary Lou. urged her to return to her music. “He told me that with all that praying, I was doing what he was supposed to do. I figure now that when I play it can be counted a prayer.”

Boogie & Bop. In her long jazz career, Mary Lou has played, arranged and composed in every jazz style, has always moved ahead of the field. During her days with Andy Kirk’s Kansas City band in the ’30s, she played sinewy but suave boogie-woogie and unearthly dirges that the boys called “zombie,” was far-famed for such swinging songs as Cloudy and Froggy Bottom. During the ’40s, she composed bop (In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee) and swung with 70 members of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony at Carnegie Hall in her Zodiac Suite. Finally she turned to classically oriented chord progressions in her playing that foreshadowed Brubeck and other modernists.

Her current, softly keyed, lacily figured style with its murky chords is an extension of that early cool style, and she is playing it better than ever. Says Marian McPartland, a first-rate jazz pianist in her own right, who for two weeks shared the bill with Mary Lou: “Just playing with her, my own playing has improved a thousand percent!” All the selections Mary Lou plays at The Composer are her own arrangements, including such standards as Somebody Loves Me (with strong, marching chords and racing right hand) and a limber, longing I’m in the Mood for Love. She plays them all with deadpan face until the music begins to stride. Then the head nods, the lips part in a shy smile and “Yeah,” says Mary Lou Williams softly. “Yeah.”

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