[Dixielandjazz] Who influenced Mary Lou Williams?

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Thu Oct 14 10:02:28 PDT 2010

Here is a quote from Mary Lou Williams. She was about 10 years old at  
the time and often taken to the theater, by her brother in law, to see  
various performers :

"I remember her in the pit of the theater, legs crossed, cigarette in  
her mouth, playing with her left hand, conducting at least four other  
male musicians with her head, and writing music with her right hand  
for the next act that would appear on the stage. As a little girl, I  
said to myself, "I'll do this one day." Later on when I was traveling  
and doing one-nighters with Andy Kirk, I'd play all night with my left  
hand and write new arrangements with my right -- sometimes I'd work  
crossword puzzles on the stand. The memory of Lovie Austin is so vivid  
to me. Seeing her, challenged me into doing difficult things."

So I think we should put the claim by her biographer (that Lovie  
Austin was her primary influence) into context. Lovie Austin seems to  
me to have been more of a "how to perform" influence than a "how to  
play music" influence.

Later on Ms. Williams wrote and arranged for Armstrong, the Dorseys,  
Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Goodman, Ellington, et al.

Then during the 1940s, she had a residency at the Cafe Society in NYC  
and was musically influenced by Billy Holiday, Josh White, Eddie  
Heywood, Teddy Wilson et al.

At the same time she would go to Mintons to play with Dizzy, Bird and  
Monk. And her apartment became a meeting place for them and others,  
like Tad Dameron, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughn  
Miles Davis, and Oscar Pettiford.

She was also among the group that went to Monk's apartment in the 40s  
and 50s to discuss the music and its developing changes.

And btw, she wrote sacred music before Ellington did.

She influenced musicians differently than Louis Armstrong. The times  
were different and jazz among her peers was developed via workshops at  
her place, or at Monk's apartment etc., or at Mintons or Monroes in  
Harlem.  Much more direct communication among the participants about  
what they were doing and how they were doing it.

But, like Dan says, it was Louis Armstrong who got the ball rolling at  
the very beginning. IMO Louis was easily the top jazz innovator/ 
influencer of the first half of the 20th century and perhaps the top  
jazz entertainer/influencer of the entire century.

Steve Barbone

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list