Since Women’s History Month ends today and Jazz Appreciation Month starts tomorrow, it’s the perfect moment to dust off that old Mary Lou Williams album in your (or your parents’, or your grandparents’) collection. Even better, catch Carol Bash’s new documentary Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band, which will be airing Wednesday, April 1, on public television. Check your local listings!
If you’ve never heard of Mary Lou, this is no April Fool’s joke: she was the Little Piano Girl, the Lady Who Swung the Band — one of the most important, and well-known female, jazz instrumentalists in history. And she should be one of your favorites. Here’s why:
- She was a musical prodigy. A self-taught pianist, she discovered her gift of perfect pitch at age four, and was performing with professionals in Pittsburgh by age six.
- She composed big-band hits during the 1930s. Of all the ways one could spend a young adulthood — partying, studying, sleeping late, working the night shift — becoming a fixture of the Kansas City swing scene is probably the coolest. Mary Lou Williams churned out popular songs for great bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk.
- She mentored some of the most jaw-dropping talents of the generation. Musicians who congregated at her Harlem apartment were protégés — some of whom you may have heard of. Does the name Dizzy Gillespie ring a bell? How about Miles Davis? Bud Powell? Charlie Parker? Thelonious Monk?
- She had a successful solo career long before Women’s Liberation. Most of us have heard tales of male virtuosos who arrived in Kansas City, Memphis or Harlem with nothing but an instrument and swung their way to stardom. Their female collaborators, if any, were usually vocalists. Yet Mary Lou Williams managed to make a name for herself as a pianist, composer and arranger back when jazz, like many other fields in the United States, reserved very few top spots for women.
- She wrote a 12-part composition called The Zodiac Suite with a different theme for each star sign — and performed it at Carnegie Hall. Do we really need to explain why that’s awesome? Here’s her take on Taurus, her own sign.
- She was one of the first women to establish her own record label (and named it after herself). Mary Records. Has a nice ring to it, right?
- She moved with the times. The Lady Who Swung the Band was not a one-genre woman. Blues, swing, bebop . . . you can trace the trajectory of 20th-century jazz straight through her life. She even embraced the free jazz of the 1970s. Here she is with Cecil Taylor in a two-piano concert — again at Carnegie Hall.
- She was quotable. Her personal philosophy proved as deep as her music, and was fundamentally connected with it. “If you work hard on your talent,” she advised aspiring artists, “your plans will fall in automatically.”
- The woman could play the piano. Well into her 60s, Mary Lou Williams was still killing it.
- She remains under-appreciated. “Mary Lou who?” is the response you’re most likely to get if you mention her name. Unlike Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, she’s seldom included on lists of jazz trailblazers, however much she belongs there (or however many of them she mentored). She had a small cameo in Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz and made an appearance (also PBS) on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood with vocalist Milton Suggs. But Carol Bash’s documentary, premiering on April 1 is no joke. It focuses on Mary Lou Williams exclusively, examining her life and her powerful legacy.
The number one reason not to miss it? In case this list hasn’t done the job, The Lady Who Swings the Band will certainly convince you that Mary Lou Williams should be your favorite jazz musician.