From Duke Ellington to Duke University, Mary Lou Williams Tells the World: 'jazz Is Love'

It is 10:45 a.m. in the rehearsal hall of the Duke University music building. The recorded voice of Billie Holiday rises in the air like a wisp of smoke. At the piano, her polished nails flickering over the keys, Mary Lou Williams begins her accompaniment. When the vocal fades, Williams continues—delivering a 15-minute lecture on jazz without uttering a word. “You got to put some love in it,” she later tells her students. “If you keep on listening to rock, you’re going to end up with the cramps. Rock puts you in a box and makes you stiff as a 90-year-old man. Jazz is love. You have to lay into it and let it flow.”

At 70, with more than six decades of musicianship behind her, Williams has earned the right to be listened to. “When I heard she was teaching jazz, I signed right up,” says Duke senior Marvin Brown. “It’s like having Albert Einstein teaching physics.” Feisty as always, Williams demurs. “You can’t teach jazz,” she says, then explains, “What I mean is, you can’t teach jazz out of books. You got to teach the student to teach himself. You got to teach him how to listen.” To that end, she and Father Peter O’Brien, a Jesuit priest who is her personal manager and teaching assistant, expose her classes to gospel, blues and jazz “until it’s running in the grooves of their brains,” says Williams. “I give them a song like Walkin’ Out the Door, which is a modern jazz blues, and teach them to phrase it like Billie Holiday. Then I’ll do it the way Count Basie did. Then like Dizzy Gillespie. I get those kids singing and moving until they really get it.”

Williams says she got it herself while still a child. “One day I was sitting on my mother’s knee when she was playing the pump organ,” she recalls. “My hands beat her to the keyboard and I picked out a melody. It must have been pretty good because she dropped me and went to get the neighbors to listen.”

When Mary Lou’s natural father disappeared before she was old enough to remember him, her mother, Pretty Jenny, married a laborer and raised nine children in the Pittsburgh ghetto known as the Hill. At the age of 6 Mary Lou made her professional piano debut at a union picnic. “I couldn’t read music at all,” she says. “I just put it up on the stand and followed it with my ear. It was like mental telepathy.” Before long the city’s first families were sending limousines to pick up the little black girl to play for their parties. “One night I came home and handed a check to my mother,” Williams remembers. “She almost fainted. It was for $100.”

At 12 Mary Lou was touring the black vaudeville circuit, and by 16 she had married saxophonist John Williams. By that time the couple was one of the two major black acts in white vaudeville; the other was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the dancer. “I used to hate him because he wouldn’t even talk to black women,” she remembers. “He used to say about me: ‘I don’t like that type of woman, but she sure can play.’ ” Later she and Williams joined Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy in Kansas City. She remained with them for 13 years, during which she arranged and composed for Louis Armstrong (one of his neckties is framed on a wall in her Durham, N.C. home), Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Within a year of leaving Kirk’s band, she toured with Duke Ellington. “He was the most beautiful person I’ve ever been around in my life,” she says. “You could never make him angry. He was elegant.”

Divorced from Williams, she married Ellington’s first trumpeter, Harold “Shorty” Baker, “in 1939 or 1940,” she says. The marriage lasted barely a year. “I’d just fallen in love with the sound of his horn,” Williams says with a shrug. Through the ’40s and early ’50s she was the only female musician to work on an equal footing with the leading jazzmen, touring clubs with her own trio. She sailed to Europe for a nine-day engagement in 1952, stayed two years and had a club in Paris named for her, Chez Mary Lou.

Then one night in 1954 Williams abruptly decided she had had enough. She simply walked offstage and several months later returned to New York. “I just stopped playing and started praying,” she says. “I did what I wanted. I had found something new.” Her friends were shocked. “Everybody thought I was going crazy,” she recalls. “I gave away my Dior gowns and sold a $6,500 mink for $50.1 picked up seven or eight people on welfare, and I cooked for them, washed for them and slept on the floor so they could live in my apartment in Harlem. I didn’t have any money coming in—no royalties or anything. Lorraine and Dizzy Gillespie used to call and ask if I had enough to eat. Then a few minutes later the doorbell would ring and Lorraine would bring me a big basket of food.”

After converting to Catholicism in 1956 and opening two New York thrift shops for needy musicians, Williams was persuaded to resume performing by priests. “They told me that nobody was playing real jazz anymore and that I had to get out there. They made me feel that I could help people with my music.” At Gillespie’s invitation, she performed with him at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Afterward she began a nationwide campaign to persuade radio stations to resume programming jazz, and established an annual jazz festival in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile she composed three complete jazz masses. The final one, later entitled Mary Lou’s Mass, was commissioned by the Vatican in 1969, introduced at the U.N. and became the first jazz score ever performed during a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Refusing to let jazz die, Williams founded her own label, Mary Records; it is one of the oldest artist-owned labels in existence. “If you’re going to get something done,” she says, “you can never take no for an answer, and you got to do it yourself.”

Pursued by Frank Tirro, chairman of the Duke music department, she signed a two-year contract as a university artist-in-residence in 1977, and another for three years in 1978. Says Duke president Terry Sanford: “She is absolutely irreplaceable.” The school’s undergraduates agree. Her two classes, each with an enrollment of about 85, are among the most popular on campus. (Sales of jazz albums in the area have increased 40 percent since her residency began.) The rest of the week she teaches students privately at her home for up to $40 an hour. She is composing music for the Duke Wind Symphony, is scheduled to have her own night next month at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., and will perform for three weeks this summer at the Knickerbocker Saloon in New York.

Living alone in a nine-room house filled with memorabilia, Williams is sustained more by her music and her sense of self than by friends. Though she is close to Gillespie and Miles Davis, she rarely sees them. She still has her apartment in Harlem, but almost never goes there. “You see, I wasn’t raised like most people,” she says. “I’m a loner. Duke Ellington said something—music was his mistress. Well, the same thing happened to me. You can have a husband or a boyfriend, fall in love, and they leave you when you least expect it. That can kill you. But I couldn’t care less if I’m with somebody. Music is my constant companion. It lives right here in my mind. It saves me.”

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