Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams

A stunning character in search of an author, Williams has found her writing soul mate in Linda Dahl, and the engrossing result is Morning Glory...
-- Gene Santoro, The New York Times Book Review

Mary Lou Williams - pianist, arranger, composer, and probably the most influential woman in the history of jazz - receives the attention she has long deserved in this definitive biography. She grew up with the jazz of the early parts of the 20th century in Pittsburgh, championed by pianists Earl Hines and Fats Waller. But she was always open to new forms of music. She was a champion of bop, Latin, avant-garde - as long as it had soul and swung. She was, as her story reveals, also much more than "just a musician."

Mary Lou Williams -- pianist, arranger, composer, and probably the most influential woman in the history of jazz -- receives the attention she has long deserved in the definitive biography by a leading scholar of women in jazz.

The illegitimate child of an impoverished and indifferent mother, Williams began performing publicly at the age of seven when she became known admiringly in her native Pittsburgh as "the little piano girl of East Liberty," playing one day for the Mellons at bridge teas and the next in gambling dens where the hat was passed for change. She grew up with the jazz of the early part of the century, championed by the likes of Earl Hines and Fats Waller, yet unlike so many other musicians of her time, she was open to new forms in jazz -- she was an early champion of bop, and a mentor and colleague to its central figures, such as Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell -- and in broader musical styles as well (after her conversion to Catholicism, she wrote masses and other sacred music).

Most of the other famous women in jazz -- Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald -- have been singers. Williams was instead a phenomenal pianist who performed solo, with small groups and big bands, in vaudeville and clubs, and on numerous records. But she is equally well known today as a composer and arranger of remarkable versatility and power, having worked with, among others, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Her compositions have been recorded by artists as varied as Marian McPartland, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat "King" Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and herself -- and, more recently, by cutting-edge players Geri Allen and Dave Douglas.

But Williams was more than "just a musician"; her interests were catholic in both senses, and she struggled to combine her love of music with her love of God. She was a tireless humanitarian, and made ongoing attempts to help dozens of down-and-out musicians; in the 1950s, her apartment was, at times, virtually a rehab. Though she was often in emotional despair, she found comfort for her many disappointments and hurts not only in her music but in her spirituality.

Linda Dahl, granted unprecedented access to the large Williams archive, has given us the whole of Williams's very full life, from her often harrowing days on the road to her tumultuous marriages and love affairs, from the ups and downs of her unique fifty-year career to the remarkable spirituality that came to inform both her daily life and her music. This is a striking portrait of one of our least understood and most important musicians. -Inside Book Flap of Morning Glory

From Publishers Weekly
In a time when the music of Harlem was beginning to stake a claim on the racially mixed Greenwich Village clientele, Williams, a young black pianist, trained her sights on a more classical venue. In 1947 she reached it, leading Carnegie Hall's New York Philharmonic in a boogie-woogie symphony of her own composition. Williams began her jazz career as a teenager accompanying orchestras "by ear." She soon taught herself to read and write music and gained a reputation as a masterful arranger. Her influence on the evolution of jazz spanned four decades from ragtime to bop, and can be heard in the works of jazz giants from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker. Many musicians attribute her with genius, but lasting popular recognition has eluded her. Dahl's (Stormy Weather) narrative, while well researched, lacks the vibrancy needed to launch Williams to the fame she nearly obtained and so clearly deserves. Using a plethora of quotations, Dahl reconstructs Williams's evolution as a prodigy, a mystic, a bohemian and a religious convert, but she offers little insight into Williams's character: Dahl tells us that Williams was shy, but follows with stories of a very sassy nature; she announces that Williams's telepathic gift haunted her throughout her life, but offers scarce anecdotal evidence. Nonetheless, Dahl's comprehensive appendixes of discography, compositions and arrangements are a boon to jazz scholars, and despite its defects, this biography remains an important step toward recognizing the achievements of a remarkable woman. (Feb.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
Dahl, a frequent contributor to jazz publications and the author of Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, presents here an overdue and definitive portrait of one of the 20th century's most important and overlooked jazz figures, the troubled pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams. Relating Williams's story without sentimentality or sensationalism, Dahl portrays her as a woman who transcended economic and gender obstacles to create an enduring legacy in the notoriously male-dominated world of jazz. Although the book does not require familiarity with music theory, it manages to interweave the details of Williams's life with the development of her music and her contributions to a variety of styles. Dahl details Williams's influence on and collaboration with some of the premier names in jazz--Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and Bud Powell--and her late-life religious conversion that resulted in a number of ambitious sacred music projects. This highly readable title is essential for jazz studies collections, suitable for women's history collections, and recommended for all collections.
Mark Brooks Woodhouse, Elmira Coll. Lib., NY
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist
Dahl, who has written liner notes and Smithsonian and Jazz Magazine stories on jazz as well as a jazz history, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women (reprint, 1989), draws on archives and interviews in her involving life of Mary Lou Williams, perhaps the most influential midcentury jazzwoman. Williams, born in Georgia but raised in Pittsburgh, was a natural pianist with a perfect ear who helped her large family by performing at the homes of Steeltown executives. By her early teens, she was on the road; by her midteens, she was married to saxophone player John Williams. And Mary Lou paid attention to all the musicians she met, ultimately winning respect for her performing skill, and composing and arranging music for Goodman, Armstrong, and Ellington, among others. Dahl follows Williams' career into bop, where she maintained key relationships with Bud Powell and Miles Davis, to Europe in the '50s, and then into the Roman Catholic Church, where Williams' spirituality became integral to her musical inspiration. An involving biography of an often unhappy but transcendentally talented jazz artist. Mary Carroll