Mary Lou Williams - piano; Buster Williams - bass
Ten days after appearing at the 1978 White House Jazz Festival, a gala bash put together by impresario George Wein that featured a host of jazz all-stars performing on the South Lawn before President Jimmy Carter, pianist Mary Lou Williams appeared at the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival as part of a show titled "Three Pianos and Two Guitars." Also on the bill were pianists Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, each performing solo, and the guitar duo of Larry Coryell and Philip Catherine. Williams, who was 68 at the time of this Carnegie Hall concert, is accompanied by bassist Buster Williams.
Williams opens her set with a dazzling solo piano medley that covers five primary styles of music -- spirituals, ragtime, Kansas City swing, blues and boogie woogie - each played with rare authority and swagger. Williams joins her for an unnamed Count Basie styled jump blues number that is fueled by his unerring walking lines. The bassist then takes the lead in playing the melody to the Cole Porter jazz standard "I Love You," which is underscored by Mary Lou's consummate accompaniment. They next turn in a rendition of John Stubblefield's modern blues number "Baby Man" and close out their Carnegie show with a flourish on Mary Lou's "Medi II" (from her 1974 album Zoning), which showcases her most aggressive playing of the set.
Three months after her appearance at the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival, Williams would become the first guest on pianist Marian McPartland's nationally-broadcast radio show, Piano Jazz, which is still airing 33 years later. She recorded her last album that summer of '78 (Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival for the Pablo label) and passed away three years later, at age 71, from bladder cancer.
An important figure in jazz history, Williams was a prolific composer as well as an accomplished stride, boogie woogie, blues and bop pianist whose refined style reflected the influence of such potent players as Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. One of her enduring works is her 1945 opus, Zodiac Suite, a series of 12 musical sketches with a different theme made for each of the signs of the zodiac. Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs (on May 8, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia) she taught herself the piano by ear. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she began playing in public at the age of six and started working on the vaudeville circuit at age 16. In 1927, she married saxophonist John Williams, moved to Memphis, and made her debut on records with Synco Jazzers. By 1929, she joined Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, which was based in Kansas City, and began writing tunes for the band, including ""W a l k i n ' a n d S w i n g i n',"" T w i n k l i n'," "C l o u d y" and "L i t t l e J o e f r o m C h i c a g o . " In addition, she wrote hit tunes for other artists, like "Roll 'Em" for Benny Goodman and "What's Your Story Morning Glory?" for Jimmie Lunceford while also contributing arrangements to the Earl Hines and Tommy Dorsey big bands. She remained with Kirk's band until 1942, when she divorced John Williams and married trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker. She co-led a combo with Baker before he joined Duke Ellington's orchestra. Williams did some arranging for Duke's band during that time.
By the mid-'40s she became associated with such young modernists as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie (she composed the bop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Gillespie). In 1952, Williams lived in London and then moved to Paris. She returned to the States in 1955 and later appeared as a guest with Gillespie's orchestra at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Through the '60s and '70s, she continued to evolve and modernize her style, at times showing an interest in the avant-garde (she performed a duo concert with Cecil Taylor in 1977, which was later released as Embraced on the Pablo label). Since 1996, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. has had an annual Women in Jazz Festival in her honor.
-Written by Milkowski