Happy 106th Birthday, Mary Lou Williams!

Composer, arranger and pianist extraordinaire Mary Lou Williams was born 106 years ago today in Atlanta, Georgia. Mary Lou’s mother and grandmother both worked as laundresses, but on the weekends, they drank heavily and argued. Mary Lou was a child prodigy on the piano, earning money to help support her family by entertaining at parties thrown by well-to-do white families.

As a teenager, she escaped the unhealthy home environment she’d grown up in, playing piano in traveling shows before settling in Kansas City in the late 1920s; it was an era when jazz music was dominated by men, and few were willing to give a young woman like Mary Lou a chance. Her husband, John Williams, was hired by bandleader Andy Kirk, and when Chicago record executive Jack Kapp came to town to audition local talent for the Brunswick label, Kirk’s usual pianist didn’t show. Williams, who had been touting Mary Lou’s abilities, convinced Kirk to give her a try.

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou was called and she rushed down to the club. The gig was a success, and Kapp arranged with Kirk for the band to do a recording session in Chi-town. The trouble was, when they arrived in the Windy City, they hadn’t brought Mary Lou with them, considering her just a fill-in. Kapp didn’t consider her a fill-in, though; he told Kirk there would be no recording with her. She was hastily summoned from Kansas City, and the session was a success.

With Mary Lou providing innovative arrangements and excelling in her role as featured instrumentalist, the Kirk Orchestra became more popular than ever. Eventually, Kirk and Williams began to butt heads as she continued to try to stretch out as a composer and arranger. She began to hear from other bandleaders—Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong, among them—asking her to do arrangements for them, and that perhaps understandably didn’t sit well with Kirk. For her part, Mary Lou felt underappreciated and underpaid, so she parted ways with Kirk and moved to New York, where Duke Ellington invited her to do arrangements for his orchestra.

That wasn’t a full-time gig, though, and Mary Lou was looking for her chance to shine. It came when jazz producer John Hammond arranged for her to be a featured performer at Café Society. She played there with just bass and drums as accompaniment, which required something of an adjustment on her part, after years of being a key cog in a big band. It was all on her now. Her run at the nightspot proved to be a success.

Though others of her generation rejected the innovations that came to be known as bebop, Mary Lou, ever looking to grow and stretch out, embraced them. “I tried to encourage the Modernists,” she said, “because I believed that bebop was here to stay.” This, even though she felt that many of the leaders of the new movement had borrowed from her work without giving her due credit.

Mary Lou’s NYC apartment became something of a salon where young jazz musicians would gather. She was willing to serve as something of a mentor to these young up-and-comers. She even wrote a song, In The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee, that was a big hit for Dizzy Gillespie and his band.

Sadly, at this stage of her life, Mary Lou was associated in minds of many with an older style of music and she wasn’t able to secure a recording contract, though she had a popular radio show at the time. Inspired in part by Ellington’s groundbreaking jazz suite, Black, Brown and Beige, she aimed to have a series of piano sketches she’d composed, under the name The Zodiac Suite, performed by an orchestra, and she succeeded: In 1946, an historic performance of the suite was undertaken at Carnegie Hall. But the reviews were not positive: It seemed the critics viewed The Zodiac Suite as neither fish nor foul, neither jazz nor classical.

So Mary Lou Williams, like many African-American jazz musicians before her, looked to Europe, but unlike many who preceded her in taking their talents overseas, Mary Lou found no satisfaction there. She returned to NYC and holed herself up in her apartment, putting aside music altogether as she dealt with emotional and mental distress.

As she put it, “Music had left my head.” She began to experience bad dreams, which she tried to interpret through drawings. She felt frightened when she began receiving messages from comic books, television and radio. “One day,” she said, “I heard a sound, like, ‘Go and purchase a rosary.’ I wondered what was happening; yet, I followed my sound to a Catholic church and started wailing madly. I was 44 years old and never asked God for forgiveness.”

Mary Lou found solace in the church—a “feeling of eternity,” as she put it. She joined St. Francis of Xavier church, where she met Father Anthony Woods, who encouraged her to return to her music. “Mary, you’re an artist,” he told her. “It’s your business to help people through music.” Father Woods asked Mary to consider writing a mass, and she was energized by the concept of combining her faith with her gift for music.

That request from Father Woods led Mary back into her music, and she experienced a renaissance in her career, finding herself in demand again.

Mary Lou Williams passed away from cancer in 1981, at the age of 71. She had arranged and composed more than 350 pieces of music.

Happy birthday, Ms. Williams, wherever you may be.

Happy New Year from Your Pals at Cladrite Radio!

Cab Calloway and his orchestra at NYC’s Cotton Club on New Year’s Eve, 1937? That would make for a memorable New Year’s Eve, indeed! Where do we buy our time-machine tickets?

Happy New Year to Cladrite readers and listeners everywhere! If Cladrite Radio goes off the air tomorrow, as we fear it will (it’s out of our hands—see this post for more info), please keep your eyes on this space, where we’ll post any new developments.

Happy New Year -- Cab Calloway and his orchestra at the Cotton Club on New Year's Eve, 1937

Happy Birthday, Claudette Colbert!

We’ve had the good fortune to meet a few stars from the Cladrite Era—Esther Williams, Gloria Stuart, Margaret Whiting, Cab Calloway, Kitty Carlisle—and we’ve enjoyed relatively close encounters (but not personal meetings) with others, among them Benny Goodman, Richard Widmark, Fay Wray, Dickie Moore, Jane Powell, Farley Granger and Francis Dee.

Our greatest regret in this area involves Claudette Colbert, who was born 112 years ago today. In 1985, we got see Ms. Colbert, costarring with Rex Harrison, in a Broadway revival of Frederick Lonsdale‘s 1923 drawing-room comedy Aren’t We All? It was an enjoyable production, and Ms. Colbert, whom we greatly admire, was delightful. So what was the issue?

For some reason, we didn’t wait by the stage door following the show to meet Ms. Colbert. As we said, we’re big fans, and we honestly don’t know what we were thinking in passing up that opportunity, but we’ve regretted it ever since, and ever more so as we became more and more immersed in the cinema of the 1930s and ’40s, when Ms. Colbert was in her glorious prime.

Perhaps in the next life, Ms. Williams or Ms. Carlisle will help us to rectify this misstep and introduce us to Ms. Colbert. But in the meantime, we’re thinking of Claudette Colbert on her birthday. Here’s hoping it’s a happy one, wherever she may be.

Claudette Colbert quote

In Your Hat, pt. 8

Here’s Chapter 8 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she shares tales of by the many celebrities she encountered while working at Sardi’s, among them George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Norma Talmadge, George Raft, Wallace Reid, Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks, and many more.

     A STOOGE, in Broadway parlance, is the assist in the act. If you do an accordion routine and a heckler is paid by you to annoy your act from the box, then you’re probably Phil Baker and your stooge eventually becomes as famous as you are. Witness Sid Silvers of Take a Chance fame.
     Broadway is full of stooges, both in real life and on the stage. It may sound strange to you but the jester in the king’s court from the time of The Erl King (I don’t know why they insist on spelling Oil as Erl) has been brought down the years until now he is labeled “stooge.” His job is to take he hard knocks, furnish the opportunity for the gag to be sprung, and appear the perfect fool.
     When Phil Baker, who pumps a mean accordion, opened in a show in New York and had a stooge in the box doing the regular routine, Al Boasberg, the gagman who writes funny lines for a dozen or more comedians, wired Baker:

  LIKED YOUR ACT STOP THE OLD
GENT WITH THE ACCORDION WAS
GOOD TOO.


     Gracie Allen, of the famous team of Burns and Allen, is the stooge of the act, even though it is she who pulls all the funny lines. Recently she gave George Burns cause to laugh when she came to him with an idea.
     “Georgie, dear,” Gracie said. “I have an idea.”
     “Well, let’s forget it,” George answered characteristically, knowing it would bring on the usual headache.
     “I’ve thought of a line for our act,” she continued.
     “All right,” gave in George. “What is it?”
     “I can’t tell you until I’ve gotten a prop.”
     “What sort of a prop?”
     “A muff.”
     “What’s a muff?” George wanted to know.
     “It’s one of those things women used to carry around so that they could hold hands with themselves.”
     “All right, Gracie, get yourself a muff and let’s have the gag.”
     She went to the best furrier on the Avenue and ordered a muff made. It has to be matched sables, four skins, exquisitely sewn. The muff cost $250 and she charged it to Geroge Burns, her husband. She brought it to him one day.
     “Here’s the muff, George.”
     He examined it carefully. He approved.
     “I got it at a bargain, George.”
     George immediately became suspicious.
     “How much, Gracie? How much?” he pleaded.
     “Well—er—two hundred and—er—fifty dollars.”
     George felt around for support.
     “Two hundred and fifty smackers for that thing? Gracie, you’ll ruin me!”
     “But it’s a bargain, George, and the furrier let me have it at that price because there are two holes in it!”
     And she held up the muff to show him the holes in which one is supposed to insert one’s hands. Burns was nonplused.
     “But what about the gag?” he wanted to know. “Is the gag worth $250?”
     “Why, George,” giggled the she-stooge, “I just did it. You see, I come on with this muff and you ask me how much I paid for it and I say: ‘I got it at a bargain because it had two holes in it.”
     With which Mr. Burns fainted dead away. And that’s how jokes are born in case you’re interested.
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