The first of a two-part series.
I first met Mary Lou Williams when my parents took me to a club called The Composer. The Billy Taylor Trio with Earl May and Ed Thigpen were playing alternate sets with her. We had come early for the cocktail set where John Mehegan began the evening. I was studying with John in the Julliard Extension Program. It was delightful to hear John, Billy Taylor, and especially percussionist Thigpen, but nothing quite hit me like the Mary Lou Williams set. She did some ballads and a number with her own type of stride called “Nicole.” In Linda Dahl’s wonderful book, Morning Glory, she mentions that this particular piece was dedicated to Nicole Barkley from Barkley Records in France.
There were a couple of instances where I would play piano for her. She would often critique me. I believe when I offered her an honorarium, she asked me to make a contribution to the Bel Canto Foundation, which was sorely in need. This all took place from 1954 to 1956.
I would go down again and again to hear Mary Lou when I was a student at Bard College. I remember going to the East Village to visit her at a modest shop, which she called the Bel Canto Foundation. In Dahl’s book, she mentions that this foundation was further uptown, and perhaps the main corridors were, but I distinctly remember a storefront shop where people donated clothing and other necessities for people with great needs.
One weekend when I came from Suffield, Conn., to study with Mary Lou, she got me an overnight place to stay with a friend of hers near East 51st Street.
When I graduated from Bard College, I moved in August 1960 to the apartment belonging to Amelia Lehrfield. She was 89 at the time and kept a respectful Yiddish apartment, where Friday night celebrations were required of her tenant. During that time I often went to Sweet Daddy Grace’s Church, the Apollo, and the Avenue then known as the 7th. The Joe Wells Supper Club, which specialized in chicken, waffles, and wonderful jazz, was located right next to Count Basie’s Club. At the Joe Wells Club, one could hear many artists such as Abbey Lincoln and, of course Mary Lou Williams. Mary Lou really let loose there. We heard much more blues, “What’s Your Story Morning Glory,” some boogie-woogie, and her show ballads were much more plaintive and much less polite than they were at The Composer. Mary Lou wasn’t as daring as Ornette, Monk, or Chris Connor at her best, but what beauty she had … the history of her music; the caressing, soft sounds; every lush Hawaiian waterfall. When she played the blues and they cried out, she was a blues pianist.
What a time to live in. There was such vitality.