Memories of Mary Lou Williams
7/10/18 by Ran Blake
(editing by Gardiner Hartmann)
I must have met Mary Lou Williams in 1952 or 1953. My parents had gone with me to New York so that I could take a few lessons with John Megan. John would play at an early show at a nice night club called The Composer. Often he’d be followed by the Billy Taylor Trio with Earl May and Ed Thigpen. A couple of weeks later Mary Lou Williams became the star attraction. Her playing was sensational. I particularly liked the piece “Nicole.“ I believe the real Nicole was married to a French record producer.
Several months later I met Mary Lou in person at the Bel Canto Foundation, a charitable institution on lower Second or Third Avenue where she made available second-hand clothes and other donated items for a wide variety of citizens. I also met a close associate of hers, Father O’Brien, a wonderful priest. I told her my wish about studying with her, and she very kindly arranged for me to stay with a friend of hers named Kurt, who had a wonderful modest apartment on far East 57th Street which must be a very elegant area these days.
She was not overly enthusiastic about my talent, but gave me left hand exercises, some encouragement, and we spoke a lot about the blues. Around this time, I heard her play at the Wells Supper Club on what was then called 7th Ave, near the Count Basie Bar where I heard organist Shirley Scott.
Mary Lou was extremely generous and far more flexible with her time than so many other teachers—including myself. I had three or four more lessons, the last would have been in the mid- 60s or slightly later, after a stormy time in Greece. I’ll never forget it. I remember walking up to the second or third floor of 63 Hamilton Terrace in the Sugar Hill neighborhood in Harlem. Her apartment was on the right side. There was an upright piano and I believe a sofa as you entered the room. The kitchen was further back. She was a devout Catholic and our first item of study was the rosary beads, then prayer, silence, meditation, and some conversation outside church doctrine such as politics, racism and so forth.
By this time I’d become fairly decent, maybe B-minus level, at playing swing, but my Noir chords— a rather rubato landscape of my fears and passions– might not have fit in to her universe. Nonetheless she encouraged me to continue using them. But it wasn’t enough. She really wanted me to attack the fundamental elements of swing. We worked on stride. I was pretty fair at some of it until we would go up two or three octaves with left hand movements. We went to the other side of the room for more prayer. Then back for another foray at the piano. I remember playing “What’s Your Story Morning Glory.” We spent a little time at solo work. She dazzled me with her playing and made mildly complimentary remarks about my own. Night was coming, I had already been there two-and-a-half hours. I started to pick my coat up and she said, “You’re not dismissed. Wait here.” She went down the hall and returned with two plates of delicious fried chicken. After dinner she said “I want you stay ten or fifteen minutes more.” There was a prayer, another quick disappearance, and then she brought us two nicely chilled glasses of scotch on the rocks. When I left I almost swooned. I believe I walked home to 113th Street and Amsterdam, but I might have taken the subway. This was one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.
I have three more memories. I went to hear Mary Lou a couple of times at the Cookery, on 8th Street east of 5th Avenue on the uptown side. I’d go there each time I visited New York. She had quite an extended stay. Once when I was with two of Dorothy Wallace’s friends, she beckoned me to come up and we did a duet. I immediately went back to my chair and at the end of the set I got a rather harsh lecture from Barney Josephson, who’d been the owner/manager of Cafe Society– the club Billie Holiday made famous. Needless to say, I got a little embarrassed. Mary Lou heard a bit of the conversation and chuckled. She looked amused. When she left the club she gave me a big wink.
Years later, Mary Lou performed at least twice in Boston. Once at Lulu’s, a club in the South End, and another when she was visiting New England Conservatory of Music.
One other experience, which would have been at the Lenox School of Jazz, a summer program in western Mass. that ran from 1957-60. Mary Lou played a dazzling series of duets with Anita O’Day. in the front lounge. Her ingenuity and their passionate interaction devastated me but did not surprise me. I’ve never heard Anita O’Day sing better. She couldn’t produce the Chris Connor that I admired so much, but she sang so genuinely, without the coyness that I often associate with her other performances. Anita’s husband John Poole might have brought a snare and sat in, but I don’t think so. Phillip and Stephanie Barber were there and very enthusiastic.
A few years later Mary Lou moved to North Carolina. There Claire Ritter had a chance to meet with her. At that time I lost contact. I wish that I had done something to reimburse for her kindness and mentorship over the years. I think are last meeting she might have been a little cool with me, but this is too many years ago for me to remember exactly. I do remember Father O’Brien coming to one of my concerts I did for Cobi Narita who hired me to play at her club. By then Mary Lou had died and Father O’Brien spoke to me afterwards, remembering we had met years ago. He was very nice about my playing and said that Mary Lou had not forgotten me.
And who could ever forget the Carnegie Hall Concert when Mary Lou partnered with Cecil Taylor!
Studying with Mary Lou Williams and Gunther Schuller were extremely important experiences. I also treasured my earlier teachers, Janet Wallace, Kate Wolff formerly with Berlin Symphony and a faculty member of Bard College, Lloyd Stoneman of Springfield, and Ray Cassarino from Hartford-Wetherfield. When in New York in 1960 I also worked with the incredible Mal Waldron and the highly disciplined Bill Russo. There were also some wonderful lessons over a short duration with George Russell, whose studio was on 121 Bank Street in the Village.
A special highlight was studying with Martin Williams, who has authored some of the best books on jazz. At that time he was living northwest of Columbia University. We spent a lot of time learning how to listen–actually he already knew how. He said there’s really a mature way to learn music. I remember one lesson studying the form of Jelly Roll Morton compositions. During the summers of the 1950s I attended Lenox School and I believe I was the only student to go all four years of its existence. The last three of which I got without cost, by working as chauffeur, switchboard operator, box office help, and a little bit of work assisting the waiters. Perhaps my biggest memory there was Oscar Peterson.