Highway 61 Revisited: The Tangled Roots of American Jazz, Blues, and Country Music

By Gene Santoro | Go to book overview
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3
Mary Lou Williams

MARY LOU WILLIAMS was the first girl who really made it into the boys' club that was (and mostly still is) jazz. Sure, girl singers by the dozen fronted the big bands. And there were always women who played jazz, though most of them worked in all-female outfits, like novelty acts. Think of Some Like It Hot, with Marilyn Monroe as the ukulele-strumming vocalist.

Like Monroe, Williams was drop-dead gorgeous, though she was tiny and in her prime weighed barely 100 pounds. Also like Monroe, she had a creative personality crosshatched with neurotic paradoxes, which she managed to transmute into art that was distinctive, eccentric—all hers. She had a rollicking boogie-and-stride piano touch that would have done her early idol, Fats Waller, proud; she liked to brag that she “played heavy like a man.”

Born in 1910, when Louis Armstrong was a preteen and jazz was unrecorded, Williams, at the age of four, could hear a piece of music and play it back. At seven, she began her long working life in Pittsburgh and earned a chunk of her near-destitute family's keep. At 12, she had mastered parlor-piano favorites, light opera, ragtime, stride, boogie-woogie, waltzes, marches, and Irish-tenor hits. She played at private parties and silentmovie houses and whorehouses—financial mainstays for jazz musicians like Waller and Count Basie. At 13, she hit the road with Boise De Legg and His Hottentots. But she did not learn to read or write music until she was zo, when she became arranger for the Swing Era band, the Clouds of Joy, led by Andy Kirk. A “territory” band, focused on the area around Kansas City, it rode Williams's distinctive arrangements to fame.

Williams's arranging style was witty and deft. She wafted “floating” chord voicings via unusual instrumentation, and stacked punchy riffs and flowing melodies over a light, looselimbed beat. Later she did charts for bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman—and was often underpaid or not paid at all. This was typical of the way she was underappreciated and overlooked even by men who perceived her talent. Still, she managed to keep growing and writing, despite a husband who lived off her and beat her. In the 1930s, she wrote self-assured tunes like

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