can pretty much count on one finger the jazz musicians who have received Papal
commissions. Mary Lou Williams will always be remembered for exceling as a
musician-arranger-composer at a time when the music industry was ridiculously
male-dominated. Yet, by reconciling and combining jazz with her Catholic faith,
Williams shattered just as many musical preconceptions. Williams’ life and
music are surveyed in Carol Bash’s Mary
Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band (promo here), which premieres
on many PBS stations this weekend (but not always at convenient hours).
was a child prodigy born to play the piano, but she first started to make a
name for herself in Kansas City, at the height of the town’s hipness. Most
musicians were loath to play with women, but her husband, alto and baritone player
John O. Williams knew she could swing. When his boss, territory bandleader Andy
Kirk found himself caught without a piano player, he reluctantly called her in
to sub. Needless to say, she basically made Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy.
Naturally, he resented her for it, but the producers were adamant—no Williams,
Williams would separate from both Kirk and her husband, striking out on her.
Despite her talent and reputation, she would experience all the ups and downs
of the jazz musician’s life, except it was always even more challenging for
Williams—until she heard what can be rightly described as her calling. Finding
spiritual renewal in the Catholic Church, Williams was encouraged to use her
musical gifts, but in a way that expressed her deepening faith.
is great to see Bash fully explores the significance and influence of Williams’
sacred music. She also gives the jazz legend her due as an entrepreneur,
self-producing her releases on her own Mary label, long before that became the
industry norm. However, the film leaves some unanswered questions regarding her
relationship with John O. According to his obit, he also played with the Cootie
Williams band and co-wrote “Froggy Bottom,” which suggests he might be one of
those unfairly overlooked kind of guys.
course, the music is the most important thing in Lady Who Swings. Bash incorporates some all-star performances,
appropriately including Geri Allen, who played the Mary Lou Williams figure in
Robert Altman’s unfairly panned Kansas
City. Wycliffe Gordon also leads a big band and Carmen Lundy lends her vocal
chops and elegant presence, but Bash cuts off them off before they really get
started. That is a shame, because just about all of us interested in Williams
will want to hear their take on her music. Maybe the concert interludes are
allowed to go on longer in a more extensive festival cut.
Indeed, fifty-four minutes on Mary Lou Williams
is certainly economical, but it only scratches the surface and whets the
appetite. Nevertheless, Bash makes sure viewers leave with the right
take-aways. If you still don’t understand Williams was Catholic who could still
swing hard after watching her film, you have serious retention issues. Brisk,
informative, and respectful of Williams’ Catholicism, Mary Lou Williams: the Lady Who Swings the Band will leave
audiences wanting more, but what we have is still definitely worth seeing.
Highly recommended, it airs Sunday night (4/12) in Salt Lake, Monday night
(4/13) in LA, Wednesday night (4/15) in San Francisco, and in the early Monday
morning a.m. (4/13) in New York/New Jersey (a more rational afternoon time-slot
was announced and canceled, but hopefully it can be rescheduled, so check those
Labels: Documentary, Mary Lou Williams, PBS, Sacred Jazz Music