[Dixielandjazz] Mary Lou Williams

ROBERT R. CALDER serapion at btinternet.com
Fri Oct 15 00:08:38 PDT 2010

I'm not sure the main influence on Mary Lou was so much Earl Hines or indeed 
Jelly as a range of 

piano players they both heard early on in the vicinity of Pittsburg. The Hines 
style was almost all there when he performed Southland on record with Lois Deppe 
 in November 1923 -- Louis' development of timing and phrasing and harmony 
allowed extensions. And Mary Lou was possibly and literally the last pianist in 

lifetime to miss taking up and developing new things. From Jelly to names which 
would strike a chill in some contributors to this site. There were lots and lots 
of raggy pianists here and there, loads of unrecorded pianists, who played 
something between ragtime and jazz, and continued to do so as other pianists 
started to do more interesting things. She didn't need to hear Jelly to get some 
way along. As I recall he played a bit at their first meeting, and she was 
sufficiently far from intimidated to play back what he had done from memory. 

And then she travelled around a lot, and picked up more from people who had 
recorded, and quite possibly others too. But she and Earl Hines could mention 
the people they heard around Pittsburg. And somehow a young white guy called Bob 
Zurke found his way into a very distinctive approach which impressed Jelly and 
stayed in Ralph Sutton's repertoire for all of Ralph's life. Steve J. Lewis was 
reputed a superior pianist to Jelly,. and he did come to New York with 
Piron's orchestra, but after cutting one piano roll and a few band and 
accompaniment performances there is no more. 

How good did Lovie Austin have to be to impress Mary Lou when she first heard 
her? The influence of famous musicians was in the extending of Mary Lou 
musically, as indeed was Kansas City.  

An important thing with Mary Lou is the matter of touch and phrasing, She didn't 
hit the keys, she had a touch as distinctive as Ellis Larkins, a soft attack 
which have her a very different flow, and different fingering prospects from a 
lot of pianists. She could hear a lot of things -- unlike one or two very 
impressive young trumpeters I've heard, who could play wonderfully when not 
trying to deliver bop changes they could not hear. She could certainly finger 
music miles away from the rhythmic primacy of Jelly, or Tuts Washington of the 
older New Orleans school. Her attempts at boogie woogie lack the percussive or 
cutting edge. 

I have an ancient magazine in which Ram Ramirez (whom Dick Lee declared the 
smallest big band he had ever heard) attributed his considerable alas 
ill-acknowledged achievements those of a disciple of the tragically short-lived 
Garnet Clark, There is also the story of a band whose name I forget (Jo Jones 
was the drummer) turning up in the Grand Terrace c. 1929 with a pianist called 
Burton Brewer who scared Earl Hines -- but had died by the time the band 
recorded with Jo on drums. 

And then there was Billy Kyle, hugely influential for more style than substance. 

There was an LP from about forty years ago which purported to be Art Tatum 
transcription recordings, supposedly compositions of his own. It certainly was 
him on "Gang o' Notes" as a brilliant stride number was called, but when the 
Tatum scholar Ray Spencer reviewed the LP he opined that not every item was 
Tatum. He was wantonly rude about Meade Lux Lewis in referring to some blues 
performances which he said were not Tatum. With some additional decades of 
listening informing me I went back to the LP a few years ago and it seemed to me 
obvious that the alleged non-Tatum items were indeed non-Tatum, I was also very 
certain they were Mary Lou -- I think the idea with the Tatum was that he would 
record some new compositions and someone would transcribe them !!!  Tatum?  This 
might have been what happened with the Mary Lou. 

She used to be spoken of as lacking in individuality because she could and did 
perform over such a wide range, and there is something completely different 
about her playing -- lyrical rather than dramatic, though I hasten to insist 
that hers was so huge an innate musical endowment the contrast identifies a 
matter of emphasis rather than incapacity. 

I'm fairly sure that when anybody did anything new she could understand it, and 
that she started her musical career naive about the range of music and indeed 
the scale of her own abilities. I would suggest she was a giant of a different 
sort from the other giants Dan mentions. 

I wonder what happened to the recordings which briefly turned up under the 
Tatum name. They're not so interesting, since unlike the Tatum masterpiece I 
mentioned they do sound like attempts to deliver what might be turned into sheet 
music and sold and played when boogie woogie was in fashion. 


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