Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams
Williams had always maintained that unlike her contemporaries, she kept up with jazz piano's stylistic evolution, and towards the end of her life she was thus singularly armed to teach the subject at Duke. But in itself this would not qualify her for ranking among the truly great artists of the medium.
But something happened in the 70s. In 1971 she was tapped to record a solo piano album by Hank O'Neal for his new label, Chiaroscuro records. O'Neal had asked producer/A&R giant John Hammond who he thought deserved to be recorded, and Hammond without hesitation named Williams. The result was one of the most compelling and fertile albums of mostly blues solo piano ever recorded, From the Heart, which was only reissued in 1998 as a double-CD, renamed for its opening tune Nite Life (Chiaroscuro CR[D] 103). Williams had clearly come to a point in her career where she had consolidated her rich musical experience into a voice of exceptional personal depth. The 70s became a decade of success and appreciation for Mary, which saw her back in the studio many times, maintaining that depth where she felt most rooted: the blues. Her 1975 Live at the Cookery (Chiaroscuro CR[D] 146), keeps that level of richness, as does her 1977 Mama Pinned a Rose on Me (Pablo 2310-819-not yet reissued on CD); while her 1974 nod to contemporary funk, Zoning (Smithsonian Folkways CD 40811) sounds dated today (you can almost see the enormous Afros in the audience).
During this coda in her career besides her recording, she held down a long-term gig at the Cookery (owned by former Cafe Society owner Barney Josephson), and best of all, her appointment to the music faculty of Duke University. There, according to Dahl, she achieved "a transcendent level of artistry, and the Duke community came to realize it had greatness in their midst." She was eventually presented with the "best loved faculty member" award on her 71st birthday-it was the month that she died of bladder cancer, May 1981.
Williams left behind a foundation which she had wanted to promote jazz to young people, but it barely has enough resources to preserve and archive her music-and much of what she created remains unreleased. Also, Dr. Billy Taylor, a longtime admirer and supporter, has named his D. C. Kennedy Center Women in Jazz Festival in her honor.
So why isn't she ranked among the greats, where she clearly belongs?
At critical points in her career Williams made choices other than to develop it: spiritual, emotional, altruistic, all infused with a certain suspicion of commercial success. The result was arguably if ironically, a deeper level of musical creation during the last decade of her life, and for which she was justly celebrated at the time. Now, though, as jazz becomes more and more marginalized in contemporary culture, that very real achievement-her blues distillation of a life of struggle, suffering, and stylistic adventurousness-is in danger of being forgotten. So the task becomes harder to redress the undervaluation that keeps Mary Lou Williams just on the threshold of the jazz pantheon. Linda Dahl's Morning Glory takes us a long way in this direction. More Mary Lou Williams recordings might just take us the rest of the way.