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The lady who swings the band

Donald Macleod charts the extraordinary life of composer and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Today he explores her years in vaudeville and with Andy Kirk's 12 Clouds of Joy.

Donald Macleod charts the extraordinary life of composer and jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Today he explores her years of graft on tour in vaudeville and with Andy Kirk's 12 Clouds of Joy.

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.

A bit of a dare-devil and a gypsy, life on the road appealed to Mary Lou Williams. She couldn't wait to leave her home town of Pittsburgh, first joining Buzzin’ Harris and His Hits ‘n Bits on tour, but it wasn't too long before she was attracting attention from some bigger fish.

Walkin’ and Swingin’
Andy Kirk & His 12 Clouds of Joy

A Kirk, ML Williams: Corky Stomp
ML Williams: Froggy Bottom
Andy Kirk & His 12 Clouds of Joy

Lotta Sax Appeal
Andy Kirk and his 12 Clouds of Joy

Mess-A-Stomp
Andy Kirk & His 12 Clouds of Joy
The Rocks
Mary Lou Williams, piano
Bearcat Shuffle
Andy Kirk & His 12 Clouds of Joy

Little Joe from Chicago
Mary Lou Williams, piano

Sammy Cahn & Saul Chaplin, arr. by ML Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band
Harry Mills, vocal
Andy Kirk & His 12 Clouds of Joy

Herman Walder/ML Williams: A Mellow Bit of Rhythm
Andy Kirk & His 12 Clouds of Joy
Mary’s Idea
Andy Kirk & His 12 Clouds of Joy

Twinklin’
Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy
Jelly Roll Morton, arr. ML Williams: The Pearls
Mary Lou Williams, piano
What’s Your Story, Morning Glory
Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy
Pha Terrell, vocal,
Scratchin’ in the Gravel
Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy

7 days left to listen

59 minutes

Music Played

  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Walking and Swinging

    • MARY'S IDEA.
    • GRP.
    • 1.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Corky Stomp

    • ASV AJA 5108 MONO.
    • ASV AJA 5108 MONO.
    • 2.
  • Mary Lou Williams & Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Froggy Bottom

    • ASV AJA 5108 MONO.
    • ASV AJA 5108 MONO.
    • 3.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Lotta Sax Appeal

    • Classics 655.
    • Classics 655.
    • 6.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Mess-A-Stomp

    • Key Moments.
    • Topaz.
    • 1.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    The Rocks

    • Topaz TPZ 1016.
    • Topaz.
    • 14.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Bearcat Shuffle

    • GRP 16222.
    • GRP.
    • 4.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    Little Joe From Chicago

    • Pablo OJCCD 9622.
    • Pablo.
    • 6.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, Harry Mills & Mary Lou Williams

    The Lady Who Swings the Band

    • GRP 16222.
    • GRP.
    • 6.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy & Dick Wilson

    A Mellow Bit of Rhythm

    • GRP 16222.
    • GRP.
    • 8.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Mary's Idea

    • GRP 16222.
    • GRP.
    • 13.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy & Mary Lou Williams

    Twinklin'

    • MARY'S IDEA.
    • GRP.
    • 10.
  • Mary Lou Williams

    The Pearls

    • MCA GRP 16222.
    • MCA GRP 16222.
    • 6.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy & Pha Terrell

    What's Your Story Morning Glory?

    • MCA GRP 16222.
    • MCA GRP 16222.
    • 12.
  • Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy

    Scratchin' in the Gravel

    • MCA GRP 16222.
    • MCA GRP 16222.
    • 15.

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