Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Sunday, 27 February 2011


Sunday again and more jazz with a Christian twist.
Mary Lou Williams was a key figure in the bebop scene in New York in the late 1940s.
She played and arranged for all the 'great' names such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
She was one of the many musicians interviewed for Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro's Hear Me Talkin To Ya where her central place in the group of jazz musicians who were creating bebop is clear. In one passage she recalls seeing a female pianist Lovie Austin sitting cross-legged, cigarette in mouth, writing with her right hand while accompanying the band with 'her swinging left'. "I told myself, 'Mary, you'll do that one day.' (And I did, travelling with Andy Kirk's band in the 'thirties on one-nighters.)"
Although she was not the only woman in jazz she was one of the few who was not a singer. She was tough and determined and in love with music.
However, in 1954 she stopped playing music and devoted her energies to the Catholic Church. She is quoted in the sleeve notes as saying "Music had left my head and I hardly remembered playing." What an extraordinary comment and an extraordinary thing to happen. Imagine being at the centre of a revolution, being part of a movement of ideas that would change the course of music and influence people around the world. Imagine being part of that and then, not only deciding to do something else, but being so immersed in your new path that you forget all the revolutionary passion you had before. Amazing.
If the sleeve notes are to be believed she would not have returned to music had she not been persuaded by her priest Jesuit Father Anthony Wood. Apparently he said "Mary, you're an artist. You belong at the piano and writing music. Its my business to help people through the Church and your business to help people through music."
What a remarkable journey for a musician to go on. I wonder what it was that prompted her to give up the thing she loved most. Was she tired of music, or the life that came with the music? Had she seen too many wild nights and debauched times that were ruining the lives of the people around her? Or was it rather the pull of the Church? Was there a calmness and certainty and purpose in Catholicism that she liked? Did it give her something to devote her considerable energies to, other than music?
I have to admire that in a person. Very few of us know the path that we should take. Very few of us devote ourselves to that path regardless of the costs. I hope she found happiness in her period of abstinence.
On 3 November 1962 at the Saint Francis Xavier church on 30 West Sixteenth Street in New York a civil rights mass was held in honour of Martin de Porres a Peruvian saint of African descent. At that service Mary Lou Williams' Black Christ of the Andes was first performed.
I think it is significant that her first piece of music to be performed was a piece intended to fit into the Catholic liturgy but also intended to praise a black saint. During 1961 and 1962 Martin Luther King Jr had been campaigning in Albany, Georgia for desegregation of the city. Mary Lou Williams' home state was Georgia and she had grown up in Atlanta, King's hometown.
The beautiful, haunting singing of Black Christ of the Andes is reminiscent of ecclesiastical music as well as gospel music from the black Baptist church from which she came. When I first heard Black Christ of the Andes I wasn't even sure it was jazz. Of course, debates about what is and what is not jazz are ultimately pointless but the 'non-jazzness' of this piece also makes me wonder whether Williams, in composing it, was trying to move away from the bebop she had helped for develop and was searching for another type of music. Perhaps Williams was trying to push the boundaries of jazz into the furthest corners of where is had not been before. In the way that Christianity was pushing into Peru and up the Andes, exploring new territory, was Williams trying to push her music into new territories and explore new modes?
She was, certainly, making a statement about racial equality, or rather the lack of it in the US. Not only was she introducing jazz into the Church but she was doing so in praise of a black saint. I am sure that no one could have failed to understand the significance.
The album, to me, seems strangely divided between the overtly religious pieces, Black Christ of the Andes, The Devil (described as humorous in the sleeve notes but I find nothing about being dragged to hell very funny), Anima Christi', Praise the Lord (which is a swinging piece of gospel) and A Fungus Amungus.
The last is a very experimental piece of music that you either think it daring and exciting or you think is a tuneless mess. You decide.
The other tracks, It Ain't Necessarily So, Miss DD, A Grand Night for Swinging, My Blue Heaven and Dirge Blues are less obviously religious either in execution or content. Of these my favourite is Miss DD apparently dedicated to Doris Duke a famously wealthy New York socialite, philanthropist and jazz fan (her Doris Duke Jazz Foundation still supports jazz). With just Williams and bass its a wonderfully vibrant and enjoyable piece of uptempo stuff. If Ms Duke was like Miss DD she must have been great fun.

Of course the cover artist is David Stone Martin whose wonderful work graces many jazz records. Are the hands locked together in praise or in pain? I've looked at this image a great deal and it seems to me to be showing the agony of the faithful as they turn to their religion during difficult times.

No comments:

Post a Comment