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Mary Lou Williams Has Been Belatedly Revered And Reappraised. It's Time To Examine Her Music On Its Own Terms.
Mary Lou Williams

Photo: Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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Mary Lou Williams Has Been Belatedly Revered And Reappraised. It's Time To Examine Her Music On Its Own Terms.

In recent years, the hitherto-obscure jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Mary Lou Williams has received a tidal wave of overdue appreciation. But is slapping the word "genius" on an underrepresented artist's name enough?

GRAMMYs/Feb 8, 2022 - 08:39 pm

Linda Dahl is aghast at the results of an Amazon search. She knew her 22-year-old biography of Mary Lou Williams, Morning Glory, was hard to find — but not that some of her greatest music was out of print altogether.

At press time, there are two used copies of Zodiac Suite, Williams' 1945 celestial tribute to her contemporaries. What about Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes, her epochal 1964 braiding of jazz and religious chorales? Gone — unless you want to cough up $60 to a third-party retailer. 1975's Zoning, which Dahl calls "a seminal recording," is hanging on by a thread — one new copy.

"I don't know what that means, but it's very upsetting," Dahl tells GRAMMY.com. "There's a mysterious element to this whole thing that I've never pinned down. Is it because she was fluid stylistically? Is it because she was female and Black? I don't know how to answer that question of why she continues to be marginalized." 

Sadly, this is par for the course for the Atlanta-born, Pittsburgh-reared pianist, composer and bandleader, who charted a courageous course during her six-decade career with those terrific works and others — even as personal woes and ingrained discrimination tested her resolve. 

Thankfully, all three albums are on Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music. (No dice for Amazon Music or Qobuz.) But the relative unavailability of Williams' music in the physical realm is odd, given that there's been a resurgence of interest in the hitherto obscure artist, from documentaries to books to tribute albums. Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis get shiny re-releases regularly.

But while Williams is back in the ether these days — and musicians have never been able to get her out of their minds — her music itself remains a little obfuscated from a public standpoint. More than 40 years after her 1981 death, she's only now getting her flowers on a grand scale.

But as jazz pianist and author Deanna Witkowski stresses, declaring someone to be a "genius" can sometimes act as a hall pass to not engage with their work further.

"We shouldn't just have Mary Lou be this exceptional icon that we put on a pedestal — because when we do that, we don't have to discuss or deal with anything specific about her music," Witkowski warns. "I think we have to sit down and have listening parties and talk about what we hear."

Musicians have tried to right that ship. As a 2021 Jaz​​zTimes cover story on Williams lays out, artists including drummer Allison Miller and pianists Chris Pattishall, Aaron Diehl and Frank Carlberg have performed and/or recorded tributes to her. That year, the Umlaut Big Band — a Parisian unit — released Mary's Ideas, a lavish two-and-a-half-hour tribute meant to "shed new light on an unjustly neglected figure."

Among those paying homage are Witkowski, who released tributes to Williams in two mediums. Those were 2022’s Force of Nature — an album composed mostly of Williams compositions like "Aries," "What's Your Story, Morning Glory?" and "Ghost of Love" — and the previous year’s Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul; a digestible biography written through the lens of both the author's and subject's devout Catholicism.

All of these do Williams justice, serving as helpful entryways to her legacy. And with their help, rather than wondering in circles why she wasn't bigger or more popular — her personal issues? her Catholic conversion? her hot-and-cold relationship with the music business? — let's celebrate Williams on the merits of her musical accomplishments.

"I've had this conversation hundreds of times with jazz musicians who say, 'Oh yeah, Mary Lou, she was a great arranger — great big band arranger. She was a great mentor for Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie,'" Witkowski says. 

"But they still can't say, musically, how she mentored them or what her music sounded like," she adds.

Trumpeter Dave Douglas, a two-time GRAMMY nominee who released four Williams covers on 2000's Soul on Soul, warns against painting her as some sort of failed artist — whether consciously or unconsciously, or due to factors in or out of her control. 

"I think you don't want to overdo, 'Hey, how come Mary Lou Williams didn't get her due?'" he tells GRAMMY.com. "Because she succeeded. She did it. She's not a household name like Duke Ellington, but she did it — and that's got to count for something."

Granted, it can be a foolhardy proposition to examine Williams' art in a vacuum, without considering the conditions she created it in. One can take away valuable lessons from her countless adversities — especially in how to nurture rather than neglect future geniuses like her. 

But when you get through "the muck and the mud" of her struggles (Williams' words), Williams' music itself is what's worth taking to heart."

Mary Lou Williams Was A Masterful Rhythmist And Harmonist

Williams was unique for many reasons. A childhood prodigy active from the '20s until her death in 1981, she worked in contexts ranging from bandleader Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy to a symphony orchestra at Town Hall in New York. She was also present for multiple sea changes in jazz's development — from boogie-woogie to big band to bebop to post-bop. 

"She has emotional roots in at least two or three different periods in the development of this music," the avant-garde piano master Cecil Taylor told the Washington Post in 1977. "If we'd compared that to European music, she has the understanding to write Beethoven's 'Fifth Symphony' as well as Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring.'"

Alongside her friend David Stone Martin, Williams even distilled her understanding of jazz history into a drawing of a tree used for her lectures, captioned "History of Jazz." From the roots to the branches are sections marked "Suffering," "Spirituals," "Ragtime," "K.C. [Kansas City] Swing" and "Bop," sprouting leaves that symbolize Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis and dozens of other crucial jazz figures.

"The blues is a matter of feeling, and the blues is basic," Williams said in 1953. "All other styles telescope out of it." With this in mind, Witkowski stresses Williams' titanic sense of swing no matter what context she found herself in, pointing to recordings like "Waltz Boogie."

"She was able to swing even when she was recording with rhythm sections who weren't always swinging as hard as she was," Witkowski says. "She was able to lead a band in that way. That takes a lot of strength of character and strength of playing." 

Though Williams was a consummate explorer and experimentalist, she never lost sight of the blues. From that rootedness in that lifegiving music grew a sublime sense of adaptability.

"The concert with Cecil Taylor is really an eye-opener," Douglas says, citing the pianists' testy 1977 performance together at Carnegie Hall — where critics viewed Williams' groundedness and Taylor's outré approach as a clash of aesthetics. Douglas doesn't quite frame it that way. Instead, he emphasizes her mastery late in life — and readiness to roll with the punches.

 "She would've been almost 70 years old," he notes. "That she was able to swing with that, and in real-time, figure it out — that is a supreme spirit."

She Was Always Ahead Of The Curve

Follow the tree's trunk upward: as jazz entered new domains, so did Williams. 

 "Very few musicians who came of age in the swing era made the transition, in terms of their own playing, into what came after," Dahl says. (Only Coleman Hawkins comes to mind as another artist who successfully made that jump.)

Dahl also notes that Williams' presentation was uncategorizable. "She had gotten some advice that she took completely to heart — no clowning," she says. "And to her, clowning meant anything that detracted from what she wanted to do musically." Thus, she evaded all stereotypes — the sex kitten, the boogie-woogie queen, the blues mama — and was all about the music. 

To Douglas, the essence of Williams' ingenuity is how she participated in and synthesized the various epochs of jazz history.

"The artists that I admire the most are the ones who go through radical transformation and change and keep growing through the years," he says. As such, he cites her development from a "ragtime, teenage piano girl" to a crucial writer in the Kansas City circuit to a mentor for bebop greats.

"Then, she writes the Zodiac Suite, which is one of the classic mid-century masterpieces," the trumpeter says. He's especially captivated by "Aries" — an ode to the personalities of Ben Webster and Billie Holiday — that "goes in so many directions and keys in such a compressed amount of time." 

After converting to Catholicism, Douglas notes, Williams' music took on heavily sacred components — as on Black Christ of the Andes — and became funkier and freer on albums like Zoning

"Her attitude was always: 'You never throw anything out; you just move into the new thing,'" he says. "If you think about Coltrane and all the progress he made, or the Beatles, or Stravinsky, or Miles — that's her path [as well]."

 Williams' rhythmic mastery, killer syncopation and radiant harmonic thinking binds it all. And that's why the piano godhead Horace Silver tipped Douglas off to her work back in the '70s. The throughline of Williams' expansive catalog is "the sound of surprise," Douglas says.

Dahl agrees with his assessment. "You listen to her recordings in the '40s and the '70s and you're like, 'Is that the same person?'" she says. "For her, that was a badge of honor because she wanted to always be ahead of the curve."

She Taught The Household Names — And They Revered Her

It can be frustrating that Williams isn't a household name, and that the majestic Black Christ of the Andes isn’t mentioned in the same breath as classics like Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and Time Out.

"Why is it that when we think of the icons of this music, we think of male musicians and women singers?" Vijay Iyer a pianist, Harvard professor and GRAMMY nominee, asked GRAMMY.com in 2020. "We've been conditioned to believe that that's the order of things."

But Williams taught many of the icons of this music — from Olympus-tier figures like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, to musician's musicians like Elmo Hope. Particularly in her later years, through the lens of Catholicism, Williams viewed herself as a servant of others.

"She wanted to encourage people — no matter what walk of life they were in — to have the wherewithal to go on," Witkowski says. "That may sound a little cosmic or whatever, but I really believe that she was trying to bring people together in love through her music. She said that a lot." But whether she played a mentorship role with them or not, she was beloved by top-tier musicians of her day.

Her 1936 arrangement of "Until The Real Thing Comes Along" for Clouds of Joy was so monumental that she got calls from Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, requesting her unique spin on the hits of the day. Williams arranged her ebullient "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Gillespie and his orchestra; it went on to be covered by Goodman, Marian McPartland and others.

It didn’t end there: "Roll 'Em" was her biggest song for Goodman, who repeatedly (and to no avail) asked her to become his full-time arranger and pianist. Gene Krupa performed "Walkin' and Swingin'"; Monk quoted it in his classic "Rhythm-A-Ning"; it remains a big-band favorite to this day.

"One week I was called on for twelve arrangements, including a couple for Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, and I was beginning to get telegrams from Gus Arnheim, Glen Gray, Tommy Dorsey and many more like them," she told Melody Maker. "Whenever musicians listened to the band they would ask who made a certain arrangement. Nearly always, it was one of mine."

And that reverence went all the way to the top: Ellington, who could make a case as the greatest American composer of the 20th century, called her "beyond category." For a jazz musician, what could be a more transformative endorsement?

Sure, Williams should be venerated on the terms of a brilliant Black woman who overcame the odds in a racist, misogynist system. But simply attesting to her genius isn't enough. Read about her. Study her. Be about a change in society that doesn't devalue and neglect creators like her.

 But in the process, don't forget to turn up Mary Lou Williams' swinging, innovative, soul-nourishing music — loud.

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GRAMMYs On The Road With Dave Douglas And Christian Scott
Dave Douglas

Photo: Austin Nelson

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GRAMMYs On The Road With Dave Douglas And Christian Scott

GRAMMY.com conducts interviews backstage at the Detroit Jazz Festival

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

The Recording Academy played host to GRAMMYs On The Road at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Aug. 31 – Sept. 3 in downtown Detroit. GRAMMY.com conducted exclusive backstage interviews with artists performing at the festival, including GRAMMY-nominated trumpet players Dave Douglas and Christian Scott.

Douglas discussed the Festival of New Trumpet Music, his creative influences and music education, among other topics. 

"What I've found for myself is I try to make sure that I'm always learning too," said Douglas. "I feel especially in music that somebody who is coming to study wants to know that the teacher is still growing too. … Music is this universal truth. We all have something unique inside of ourselves that we can share."

Douglas is a New York-based trumpeter, composer and educator. Since 2005, Douglas has operated his own record label, Greenleaf Music, releasing his own recordings and other jazz artists such as Donny McCaslin and Linda Oh. He has received two career GRAMMY nominations for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group for The Infinite in 2002 and Best Contemporary Jazz Album for Keystone in 2005. He is the co-founder and director of the Festival of New Trumpet Music, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2012. His latest Dave Douglas Quintet project, Be Still, will be released Sept. 25. The album features vocalist Aoife O'Donovan, marking the first time Douglas has featured a vocalist on one of his recordings.

Scott discussed his education at Berklee College of Music in Boston, his signature model Bb trumpet and the "stretch" music subgenre, among other topics. 

"The music that I make, the younger musicians are referring to it as 'stretch' music," said Scott. "It's like a new sort of sound in jazz. It's just like a new type of fusion where we're trying to [incorporate] all these different vernacular and musical contexts into the jazz idiom."

Born in New Orleans, Scott is the nephew of jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, Scott played in the Berklee Monterey Quartet, an ensemble comprising the institution's top musicians. In 2006 he released his major label debut, Rewind That, on Concord Records. The album garnered Scott a GRAMMY nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. His 2007 album, Anthem, was partly inspired by his experiences in witnessing Hurricane Katrina. The album features bass by GRAMMY winner Esperanza Spalding. Scott's most recent album, Christian aTunde Adjuah, was released in July. The album peaked at No. 2 on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart.

In addition to artist interviews, The Recording Academy also presented GRAMMY SoundTables featuring Detroit Jazz Festival performers discussing their music and careers. Participants included GRAMMY winners Terence Blanchard, Gary Burton and Joe Lovano.

2011 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Selections Announced
Joan Baez, Joan Baez

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2011 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Selections Announced

Selections include recordings by Joan Baez, the Beatles, Ray Charles, the Jackson 5, the Marvelettes, Willie Nelson, and Sergei Rachmaninoff

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(For a complete list of 53rd GRAMMY Awards nominees, click here.)

In continuing its mission to preserve and celebrate music year-round, The Recording Academy has announced the newest additions to its legendary GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, adding 30 recordings to a collection that now totals 881 titles. The collection is on display at the GRAMMY Museum.

"The GRAMMY Hall Of Fame represents all genres of music, acknowledging the diversity of musical expression for which The Academy has become renowned," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of The Recording Academy. "These musical treasures have brought us timeless recordings, and each of them deserves to be memorialized. These recordings are living evidence that music remains an indelible part of our culture."

The dynamic group of 2011 inductees range from the Beatles' "Penny Lane" to the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There." Other recordings include Al Jolson's "My Mammy," the Marvelettes' "Hey Mr. Postman," Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again," the Original Broadway Cast recording of Brigadoon, Prince & The Revolution's Purple Rain, and Otis Redding's "I've Been Loving You Too Long." Other inductees with selections include Joan Baez, Mildred Bailey, Ray Charles, Jimmy Cliff, Fats Domino, Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra, Al Green, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Hank Williams With His Drifting Cowboys, among others.

Established by The Academy's National Trustees in 1973, the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame was created to honor recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that are at least 25 years old. Recordings are reviewed annually by a special member committee of eminent and knowledgeable professionals from all branches of the recording arts, and final approval is made by The Recording Academy Trustees.

For a complete list of 2011 GRAMMY Hall Of Fame inductees click here.

Tune in to the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards live from Staples Center in Los Angeles on Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. For updates and breaking news, please visit The Recording Academy's social networks on Twitter and Facebook.
 

George Avakian: Producer, Talent Scout & Past Academy Chair Dies

George Avakian

Photo: Brian To/FilmMagic

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George Avakian: Producer, Talent Scout & Past Academy Chair Dies

Trustees Award recipient who played a role in the careers of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Bob Newhart has died at age 98

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2017 - 09:01 am

Esteemed record producer, talent scout, manager, and past Recording Academy Chairman/President George Avakian has died, according to The New York Times. While no cause of death was given, the news was confirmed by his daughter, Anahid Avakian Gregg. He was 98 years old.

Born in Armavir, Russia, Avakian immigrated with his family to the United States as an infant. Growing up an avid jazz fan, he was already a published jazz critic by the time he was a sophomore at Yale University.

Avakian's career as a producer and talent scout began in 1939 when he convinced Decca Records to let him record prominent jazz musicians on the Chicago scene, which became a six-set of recordings titled Chicago Jazz. According to critics and historians, this is considered as the first jazz album.

Throughout his storied eight-decade-plus career with labels such as Decca, Columbia Records, Warner Bros. Records, RCA Records, and Sony Legacy, Avakian worked with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Bob Newhart, Johnny Mathis, John Cage, and Ravi Shankar, among other music legends. 

In the process, he helped cultivate influential recordings such as Armstrong's Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1954), Ellington's Ellington At Newport (1956), Brubeck's Brubeck Plays Brubeck (1956), and Davis' Miles Ahead (1957), and Rollins' On The Outside (1966).

Also heralded for popularizing liner notes, he earned one career GRAMMY at the 39th GRAMMY Awards for Best Album Notes for The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings by Davis and Gil Evans. He was honored with the Recording Academy's Trustees Award in 2009 for his outstanding contributions to the music industry during his lifetime. 

A great friend to the Academy, Avakian served as the seventh Chairman/President of the organization from 1966–1967. 

"In a career spanning more than 40 years, George achieved several notable milestones including popularizing liner notes, helping establish long-playing albums as the industry standard, and developing the first jazz reissue series," said Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow. "We have lost an integral member of our creative community. Our condolences go out to George's family, friends, and fellow collaborators."

Recording Academy Remembers Fats Domino

Set List Bonus: 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival, Day One
Herbie Hancock performs at the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival on June 15 in Los Angeles

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival, Day One

Check out our concert recap of the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Lisa Goich-Andreadis
Los Angeles

As the circular Hollywood Bowl stage made its first rotation on June 15, signaling the beginning of the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival, hardcore jazz fans filed in carrying their requisite coolers full of barbecue, baked goods and thirst-quenchers. With a crowd of nearly 20,000 that included a bevy of Playboy bunnies and Hugh Hefner himself, day one of the two-day festival brought collaborations galore for, arguably, one of the best days in the festival's 35-year history.  

Kicking off Saturday's festivities was GRAMMY-nominated comedian George Lopez, who took over the master of ceremonies reins from 30-year veteran Bill Cosby. Lopez's maiden voyage would have made Cosby proud.  

The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts Jazz Ensemble hit the day's first notes, directed by Jason Goldman. It's always a treat to see young musicians embrace the classic jazz canon, and the students did a stellar job soaring through songs such as Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail."

Bringing some Afro-Cuban love to the stage was the Pedrito Martinez Group featuring pianist/vocalist Ariacne Trujillo. Martinez, a Cuban-born monster percussionist, played like he had five hands as he bobbed and weaved his way through gems such as David Calzado's "Ay! Ay Amor" and Tirso Duarte's "La Luna." Trujillo performed a beautiful version of the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There."  

The Grace Kelly Quintet made their Playboy Jazz Festival debut, led by saxist Kelly, who at 21, is likely one of the youngest artists to perform at the festival. Trading riffs with Kelly was her mentor, sax legend and four-time GRAMMY winner Phil Woods.

Past GRAMMY nominee Gregory Porter, who was dapperly dressed in a pressed white suit jacket and red bow tie, had the crowd swaying to his smooth vocals on songs such as "On My Way To Harlem," "Be Good" and the GRAMMY-nominated R&B-infused track "Real Good Hands."

Taking the energy up a notch was the GRAMMY-winning Robert Glasper Experiment. Blending jazz, R&B and hip-hop, Glasper and his band, featuring lead vocalist Casey Benjamin, had the crowd on its feet with covers of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The highlight of the set was an appearance by special guest Dianne Reeves for a sweet version of "Afro Blue."

Few remained seated during GRAMMY winner Angelique Kidjo's set featuring trumpet great Hugh Masekela, who joined for a performance of "Pata Pata" and the crowd-favorite "Afirika." Hands swayed in the air for the entire 45-minute set. GRAMMY winner Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band followed with special guest guitarist and fellow GRAMMY winner Lee Ritenour. One of the set's highlights was a special appearance by "The Voice" contestant Judith Hill, who sang her own composition, "Party Rockers."  

A cappella group Naturally 7 were joined by GRAMMY-winning legend Herbie Hancock and left the crowd in awe with their unique "vocal play" styling on songs such as "Ready Or Not" and "Wall Of Sound."

Virtuoso saxophonist James Carter teamed with legendary GRAMMY-winning conguero Poncho Sanchez & His Latin Jazz Big Band for a true Latin jazz feast, performing covers of Ellington's "The Feeling Of Jazz" and a conga-driven version of Hancock's "Watermelon Man."

In the show's final performance of the day, Jeffrey Osborne took the stage and asked the crowd if there were "any L.T.D. fans in the house." It turns out there were. With GRAMMY winner George Duke on piano, the crowd sang along to songs such as "Sweet Baby," "Holding On (When Love Is Gone)," "Love Ballad," and "(Everytime I Turn Around) Back In Love Again," making for a jam-worthy ending to the festival's first day. With 18,000 voices belting out "Can You Woo Woo Woo?" — the funk was definitely in the house.

This was a Playboy Jazz Festival that won't quickly be forgotten.

(Lisa Goich-Andreadis, a Detroit native living in Los Angeles, manages the Jazz & Comedy Fields for The Recording Academy. She's currently working on a memoir titled 14 Daysand can be heard as a special guest on "The Mitch Albom Show" on WJR-AM in Detroit. For more information on Lisa and her projects, visit her website at www.lisagoich.com.)