Mary Lou Williams was a pianist, arranger and composer who lived and played through several decades of jazz. As the music evolved and changed, so did her playing. A child prodigy and primarily self-taught, Mary Lou was considered professionally competent by the age of twelve. She performed in vaudeville bands as a teenager, arranged and composed for many popular orchestras while in her twenties, and by her thirties was touring as a soloist and band leader. Mary Lou Williams was considered one of the giants of jazz, a pioneer in having her own record label, and an educator whose later years were spent teaching at Duke University.
I interviewed her in May of 1976 in her New York apartment, formerly a frequent gathering place for musicians such as Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. I was seven months pregnant and had my four year old son, Mansur, with me. Although Ms. Williams was not used to his youthful fidgeting, she welcomed him and regaled me with stories of her life in music and her charitable work, often for downtrodden musicians.
My favorite anecdote was of her conducting a band with one hand while writing arrangements with the other. I still enjoy visualizing that scene, almost as much as my memories of Mary Lou Williams in performance. She could, in one medley, take an audience through the entire history of African-American music - spirituals, ragtime, blues, bebop, avant-garde and everything in between. Mary Lou Williams mastered it all. My other favorite moment was seeing her on Sesame Street, teaching the children and the puppets scat singing.
In 1978 I was able to speak with her again after an intimate performance at the University of Chicago. Once more she gave generously of her time, allowing me to shadow her for a bit. From these encounters and further research I wrote an article, A Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, which appeared in Hot Wire: The Journal of Women's Music.
I've long sought role models and wisdom from the musical elders. Mary Lou Williams certainly fulfilled that for me.
And Mansur, now in his forties, still remembers that visit to her apartment. Rare experiences - precious gifts for our children.