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Dark Clouds of Joy 

From juke joints to jazz masses, Mary Lou Williams' amazing life is on display at DUMA

Piano Girl

Calling Mary Lou Williams the most important female instrumentalist in the history of jazz is simply telling the truth--and missing the point. One peek at the revealing exhibit of Williams' personal artifacts in the Duke University Museum of Art's main gallery now through March 18 confirms that Williams was so much more than a piano virtuoso. Clinging to music like a rider atop a wild pony, Williams took life at a full gallop. She unswervingly searched for sure answers in this uncertain world: the perfect harmony, true romance, a proper paycheck, the everlasting love of God. In the end, her uniquely homespun Catholicism brought Williams inner peace, yet she remained somehow restless, aware that the devil was lurking somewhere just around the corner.

As a musician, Williams started fast. She was a child-star with spidery fingers, that "little piano girl" who serenaded the wealthy Mellon family in Pittsburgh over tea and biscuits. For the next seven decades, she spent much of her topsy-turvy life on stage. She played every kind of venue--from stately concert halls to dangerous, dirt-floored roadhouses. While the rest of the country was devastated by the Depression, for example, Williams the precocious 19-year-old kicked up a cloud of dusty blues at rawboned gambling joints in Kansas City during the Pendergast Era.

"What a city," Williams remembered. "There were as many as 50 nightclubs on 12th Street and 18th Street. Their famous barbecue, chili and crawdads were the end. Nobody went hungry in Kansas City."

Ironically, 42 years later, she would return to a nearby KC neighborhood for a gig at St. Francis Xavier Church to perform her celebrated Mary Lou's Mass. Sinner. Saint. Such was the enigmatic career of Mary Lou Williams.

Yet, even when she entertained crowds of appreciative listeners, she was often absolutely alone: the only woman on the dusty band-bus, a solitary dark figure swinging a gaggle of fair-skinned fans, a God-fearing pilgrim in a bar bulging with smoke and booze.

Many of the images on display at DUMA at first appear undistinguished. But peer deeply into the cracks of Williams' art and you begin to understand the subtlety of a great American life. Dig the pianist's cartoon-like self-portraits as well as the glamorous publicity stills of her youth. The brightness of her lipstick is tempered by melancholy, framed by cheekbones worthy of a cover girl.

Via deep-toned period black-and-whites and color snapshots yellowed by time, the exhibit also revisits her many abodes--from a crowded New York apartment where Williams spun 78s alongside trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to her unimposing but comfortable crib on Durham's Shepherd Street. There's the elderly Williams standing out front, striking a matronly pose, surrounded by brick and wearing a smile.

Her final days as artist-in-residence at Duke (1977-81) are represented by a series of other telling photographs. Written indelibly upon the faces of her students is a certain eagerness which confirms exactly what the kids thought about their mentor. They listen carefully, hanging on Williams' every syllable.

To fully appreciate the visuals, serious exhibit-goers should do a bit of homework before driving to DUMA. Read anything you can about Williams, who is featured in every jazz history book and encyclopedia. Linda Dahl's intriguing and splendidly researched Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams (Pantheon) is also heartily recommended. Published just last year, Glory is as entertaining as jazz nonfiction gets.

Most importantly, please take an hour or two to lay ears on Williams' timeless piano playing. Snuggle up to Live at the Cookery (Chiaroscuro), a later-day duet CD with bassist Brian Torff that explodes with her trademark, double-fisted exuberance. You'll delight in the way Williams juxtaposes elements of ragtime, stride, swing, bebop and even bits of modern-sounding dissonance. Near the end of her life, while living in Durham, she often erupted in stylish, heaven-bent solos like these that summarized the history of American piano improv. That's a helluva lot to say in a mere 32 bars, but when this beautiful old lady banged on the 88s, time stopped--and magic happened.

Prodigy to Professor

Most portrait shows are like the wonderful exhibition on loan from the National Portrait Gallery that's up at the N.C. Museum of History now. These paintings endeavor to reveal, in their diverse ways, as much as possible about their subjects with carefully designed and intensely executed single images. New York art historian Marc Miller specializes in a different kind of exhibition, however--one focused on portraiture and biography. He calls the shows he organizes "picture stories," and mixes artworks and artifacts to create understanding of the lives of complex personalities. His previous exhibitions include one about Louis Armstrong, and now Miller's Mary Lou Williams: In Her Own Right is on view at the Duke University Museum of Art. It includes relatively few works of art (and certainly none of the caliber of several of the portraits at the NCMH), but has hundreds of pieces of visual material illuminating the life and career of the great jazz musician.

Miller has organized this material chronologically, beginning with snapshots from Williams' early childhood in Atlanta, where Williams--then Scruggs--was born in 1910. To supplement these, Miller added three of Hale Woodruff's wonderful prints. Although from a slightly later period, these works heighten our understanding of living conditions of the working poor in the South early in the 20th century. As Miller says, the interjection of these artworks "conveys the theme and captures the mood" of the times.

The family moved on to the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh, where Williams' prodigious talents became widely recognized. Before she started school, she was earning money for her family by playing at events and joints all over town. Along with the family photos and scrapbook materials, a fine photograph by Teenie Harris--Pittsburgh's James Van Der Zee--of that city's Wylie Avenue, gives us a visual sense of the world the little girl was moving in. Said Williams later: "I began visiting Wylie Avenue to jam with the musicians there. Wylie Avenue was a place that any decent person would not visit even during the day." The street was full of bars and gambling joints and music clubs.

But Pittsburgh couldn't hold this girl with perfect pitch and a powerful, rollicking piano style. By age 14, she was on the road with a vaudeville troupe. Also in the band was one good-looking saxophonist, John Williams, whom Mary Lou soon wed. When their vaudeville show folded, the band's bad luck turned to good when they were invited to play with the dance team of Seymour and Jeanette, who had broken out of the all-black theater circuit and were performing in white theaters as well. So, at age 16, Williams found herself in a very happening New York City. The intensity of the musical action is conveyed by E. Simms Campbell's fabulous bird's-eye-view map of the clubs of Harlem at the time. Campbell, a black illustrator and designer who had a syndicated column, "Harlem Sketches," and later became chief designer at Esquire magazine, marks the location of dozens of venues where music could be heard and made--and Williams played on some of those stages.

Soon, however, she was on the road again, this time in the Midwest. Settling in Kansas City, she became a full-time member of the Clouds of Joy (originally known as the Dark Clouds of Joy), and began to come into her own as a musician. There is a lot of wonderful archival material from this period, showing the lively and beautiful Williams at work. It was during this time, too, that she began to learn to write and arrange music, and some of that sheet music is on display here. Williams spent years in Kansas City, which had a thriving black community and a jumping music scene, but eventually she went back to New York.

One of this exhibition's most interesting sections looks at Caf&233; Society, a New York club that was at the heart of the intellectual and artistic scene in the city during the 1940s. Here the arts mixed with leftist and progressive politics, and here Mary Lou Williams was introduced to the idea of "music with a mission." It was at Caf&233; Society that Billie Holiday first sang "Strange Fruit," and the regulars there performed songs like "Ballot Box Boogie," in support of Roosevelt's re-election. There's a great photo of Williams there looking like a beauty queen, her big hands on the piano keys.

It seems to have been at Caf&233; Society, too, that Williams met the young designer David Stone Martin, a great friend of activist artist Ben Shahn's. Martin went on to become famous as a designer of record album covers, and he did a number of them for Williams. The exhibition includes a couple of these--one really sharp--and a large, vivid watercolor by him that is one of the visual highlights of the show. Another highlight is a color lithograph by Romare Bearden, "Homage to Mary Lou." Bearden was a great artist, an intellectual and a passionate jazz lover; his homage indicates the esteem in which Mary Lou Williams was generally held.

Williams, who had started out playing ragtime as a child and moved through the great blues-based styles of the century, was a musical experimenter and innovator. She was interested in the new bop and straight-ahead jazz, and became a friend and nurturing figure to musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. There's a photo of a bunch of musicians, including Gillespie and Jack Teagarden, hanging out at Williams' during this period. But a lot of these guys were getting broken down and strung out, and Williams was getting burned out. She left for Europe, working in Paris clubs during the last gasp of the postwar jazz age. Artifacts here include her French work permit.

Soon, however, Williams herself had a breakdown. She returned to New York, converted to Catholicism, quit music and--when not making mad lists of her friends and their sins--wanted to devote her life to helping people. She opened a thrift shop, the Bel Canto, and mounted speakers on the exterior to play the healing music of jazz to the people on Harlem streets. Fortunately, it wasn't too long before she realized that the best way she could help people was with her own music.

She had fallen in with a "liberal clique of Catholic priests" (this was during Vatican II) and she began to compose jazz masses. Knowing that there was no real audience for this work that would make it economically viable for a record company to produce, she started her own record company, and roped her old friend David Stone Martin into doing album covers for her.

Thanks to former Duke president Terry Sanford laying down the law that Duke would hire some black faculty, Mary Lou Williams spent the last years of her life as artist-in-residence at the university. There's a photo of Williams and Sanford together, but more telling about her artist's soul are the snapshots of Mary Lou in the hospital at the very end. They had to bring a piano into her room. She was near death, but the music was her life, and she wasn't going to do without it until she just had to.


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