[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
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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