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The little piano girl of East Liberty

Donald Macleod charts the extraordinary life of composer and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, beginning with her impoverished childhood growing up in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Donald Macleod charts the extraordinary life of composer and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams beginning with her impoverished childhood growing up in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Mary Lou Williams’ music stands out from the crowd because, as Duke Ellington recognised, “her writing and performing have always been just a little ahead throughout her career.” A prolific composer and arranger, she was also a gifted pianist. A master of blues, boogie woogie, stride, swing and be-bop, Williams was quick to absorb the prevailing musical currents in her own music, naturally able to exploit her ability to play anything she heard around her. It is this restless musical curiosity that defines her own compositions, and led her to become friends with and mentor many younger musicians, among them Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Born around 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had to overcome racial segregation, gender discrimination and the disadvantages of an impoverished family to realise her musical ambitions. Learning to play entirely by ear, she was performing locally by age six. Barely into her teens she was touring professionally as a pianist, living proof that - contrary to the prevailing views - women really could play jazz as well as men. But her artistic success came at some personal cost, with instances of domestic abuse, two divorces, a gambling addiction, and the ongoing strain of trying to support her extended family, all taking its toll over the years. After taking a spiritual path, she spent some years trying to rehabilitate addicted musicians, and developed an interest in writing sacred jazz pieces, and after a long career of some sixty years she took on the mantle of educating future generations about the cultural roots of jazz.

Over the course of the week Donald Macleod follows Mary Lou Williams as her life and musical pathways intertwine, from the early years playing Kansas City swing, to embracing be-bop, religion and modern jazz.

When she was around three years old, sitting on her mother's lap as she played the harmonium, suddenly Mary Lou Williams reached up and replicated exactly what she'd just heard her mother do. It was a defining moment. Williams' future had just been decided, and in her own words, "I never left the piano after that."

The History of Jazz (excerpt)
Mary Lou Williams, speech and piano

ML Williams, L. Gales: Rosa Mae
Mary Lou Williams, piano
Bob Cranshaw bass
Mickey Roker, drums

My mama pinned a rose on me
Mary-Lou Williams, vocals/piano

Willis
Mary Lou Williams, piano
Carline Ray, bass
David Parker, drums
Abdul Rahman, congas

Nite Life Variations
Mary Lou Williams, piano

Close to Five
Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy

Lonely Moments
Cloudy
Marian McPartland, piano

Kool Bongo
Monk, arr. Mary Lou Williams: Around Midnight
Mary Lou Williams Quartet
Mary Lou Williams, piano
Ken Napper, bass
Allan Ganley, drums
Tony Scott, bongos

4 days left to listen

59 minutes

Last on

Mon 18 Nov 2019 12:00

Music Played

  • Mary Lou Williams

    Medi I

    Performer: Mary Lou Williams.
    • Smithsonian FW02860 FJ 2860.
    • Smithsonian.
    • 2.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Rosa Mae

    Composer: Larry Gales. Performer: Mary Lou Williams. Performer: Mickey Roker. Singer: Bob Cranshaw.
    • Smithsonian SFCD40811.
    • Smithsonian.
    • 9.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me

    Performer: Mary Lou Williams. Music Arranger: Mary Lou Williams. Singer: Mary Lou Williams.
    • LP Pablo 2310856 EX/EX 1980.
    • LP Pablo.
    • 7.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Willis

    Performer: Mary Lou Williams. Performer: David Parker. Performer: Abdul Rahman. Singer: Carline Ray.
    • Mary Lou’s Mass.
    • Smithsonian.
    • 1.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Nite Life Variations

    Performer: Mary Lou Williams.
    • Chiaroscuro Records ‎.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Close to Five

    Ensemble: Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy.
    • Topaz.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Lonely Moments

    Performer: Marian McPartland.
    • Concord.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Cloudy

    Performer: Marian McPartland.
    • Concord.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Kool Bongo

    Performer: Mary Lou Williams Quartet. Performer: Mary Lou Williams. Performer: Allan Ganley. Performer: Tony Scott. Singer: Ken Napper.
    • Vogue.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Round Midnight

    Performer: Mary Lou Williams. Performer: Allan Ganley. Performer: Tony Scott. Music Arranger: Thelonious Monk. Singer: Ken Napper.
    • Vogue.

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