Mary Lou Williams:
First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard
by D. Antoinette Handy
When Mary Lou Williams appeared at St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, in April 1978, I drove down and had my first meeting with someone I had long admired. Following her concert, I approached her about participating in a program in Richmond for which I was Artist-in-Residence, funded through the Special Arts Project of the Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA).
The selection of participants was my responsibility as Artist-in-Residence; I wanted to bring to Richmond the very best, and to have them interact with students, faculty, and the community. During Mary Lou’s first visit, on December 4 and 5, 1979, she offered one public concert, two youth concerts, and a master class for teachers in the Richmond public schools. For the December 4 concert, a Baldwin piano was to be sent over to John Marshall High School (the evening’s concert venue) by the local music store. While Mary Lou and Father Peter O’Brien (a Jesuit priest and jazz historian, and her manager) were en route to Richmond, a telephone call alerted me to the fact that the piano had been dropped, and that there was absolutely nothing that could be done about sending over a replacement.
A relatively decent grand piano was located in the high school’s choir room, and we moved this piano into the auditorium. I arrived at Mary Lou’s hotel long before our appointed hour, and when she and Father O’Brien arrived I suggested that she go over to the auditorium ahead of schedule, allowing her sufficient time to test and become familiar with the piano. Mary Lou responded,
"I don’t need to test the piano. During my sixty-plus years of playing, doing all those one-nighters, I’ve had to play on all kinds of pianos. If a few keys aren’t working, you merely make the necessary changes. It makes you a better musician, having to transpose to different keys. [Art] Tatum played his best when keys were missing."
Such was my first formal introduction to "the lady with the amazing talent."
Mary Lou visited again in April 1980, as Resident Eminent Scholar at Virginia State University in Petersburg, and presented one formal concert, two master classes, and several consultations and advising sessions. The next month she led two sessions in improvisation for teachers in the Richmond Public Schools.
Over a period of five months, Mary Lou and I enjoyed many hours of good conversation—while driving from place to place, or between activities— which resulted in a "Conversation" published in The Black Perspective in Music (Fall 1980) as well as a profile of Mary Lou in my book, Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras (Scarecrow Press, 1981). I delivered the book to her personally, three weeks prior to her death in Durham, North Carolina. A bedridden Mary Lou was pretty much out of it, but my vivid remembrances of that visit are a telephone call from Dizzy and Lorraine Gillespie (who Mary Lou said called regularly, as did bassist/vocalist Carline Ray) and a steadily moving right foot, keeping rhythm to whatever tune was running through her head.
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