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 CafĂ© 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 117th Birthday, Duke Ellington!

Duke Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington 117 years ago today in Washington, D.C. His contributions to music are difficult to overstate: composer, pianist, and, for more than half a century, leader of a great jazz orchestra. And my oh my, was he an elegant man.

Happy birthday, Mr. Ellington, wherever you may be. Thanks for all the wonderful music.

Duke Ellington

Happy 126th Birthday, Paul Whiteman!

Today marks the 126th birthday of orchestra leader Paul Whiteman. Known as the King of Jazz during his heyday, Whiteman isn’t afforded that level of respect by many in the jazz community today, but his influence is undeniable. His music may have leaned to the pop side a little bit, but in that era, jazz was dance music. It was pop, in a sense, and Whiteman helped to bring the new sounds to a wider audience.

What’s more, the list of immortals who played or sang with Whiteman during his career is a lengthy one, among them Bing Crosby (who during his time with Whiteman was one of the hippest of vocalists), Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Jack Teagarden, Bunny Berigan, and Ramona Davies (she of the Grand Piano)—names that are very familiar to anyone who listens to Cladrite Radio reguarly.

Whiteman also commissioned George Gershwin to write Rhapsody in Blue, and that influential work’s 1924 debut was performed by an expanded version of Whiteman’s orchestra, with Gershwin himself at the piano.

Whiteman also performed in motion pictures, and it was announced earlier today that the restoration of his own starring vehicle, King of Jazz (1930), is now complete. It will be unveiled in screenings in various spots around the country beginning in May.

No less an authority than Duke Ellington once declared, “Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity,” and that’s good enough for us.

Happy birthday, Pops. We can’t wait to see a pristine new print of your movie in May!

Paul Whiteman

Happy Birthday, Django Reinhardt!

Today marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. He was born in Belgium and lived in Romani (gypsy) encampments near Paris after the age of eight. As a child, he played violin, banjo and guitar, but it was as a guitarist that he made an indelible mark.

His accomplishments may be viewed as all the remarkable given he was burned in a fire at the age of 18, causing the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand to be paralyzed. Thereafter he had to concoct his own unique fingerings for creating chords on the guitar.

As a young musician, Django came under the influence of Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians, and his musical path was set. Around this time he met violinist Stephane Grappelli, with whom he would soon form the influential combo, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

Django toured the US in the autumn of 1946 as a guest soloist with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, but he soon returned to France as some promised solo gigs on the West Coast failed to pan out.

In 1951, he retired to Samois-sur-Seine, near Fontainebleau, though he continued to play gigs in Paris. He was intrigued by bebop and began to incorporate its vocabulary into his playing.

He died of a brain hemorrhage walking home from the Avon train station following a Saturday night gig. He was just 43.

Here’s an all-too-brief clip of Django performing his two-fingered, five-stringed magic: