No One Can Put a Style on Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams left the door to her Sugar Hill apartment open.

Because sometimes, other jazz musicians just needed a place to rehearse, compose, improvise – Thelonius Monk wrote some pieces there. Or they needed Ms. Williams’ advice – Charlie Parker asked her thoughts on a group with strings, Miles Davis on his group with a tuba.

And Ms. Williams would dig through her decades – over five in all – of playing, arranging, and composing to offer some wisdom. “If you make a mistake, you work something good out of that mistake,” she said. “Anything you are shows up in your music,” she said.

And Ms. Williams, herself, was a lot.

She was an African-American woman in a music scene where the headliners, managers, kingmakers were mainly men, in a world where racism ran deep and ran wide.

She’d grown up in an Atlanta shotgun house playing a pump organ on her mother’s lap, hit the road playing boogie-woogie and stride piano, joined a band, arranged, composed, played, left the band, made a big name for herself in New York’s jazz scene, got that apartment in Sugar Hill.

“Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary,” was how Duke Ellington put it. “No one can put a style on me,” was how she put it.

“I’ve learned from many people,” she reflected. “I change all the time.” She believed in change, in experimentation, in wide openness to new ideas and music that came from more than one place in a person.

When your hands touch the instrument, “ideas start to flow from the mind, through the heart, and out the fingertips,” she wrote on a flyer she handed out at shows. “If the mind stops, there are no ideas, just mechanical patterns. If the heart doesn’t fulfill its role, there will be very little feeling, or none…at all.”

It was all part of the wisdom she’d gathered over five decades of playing – through styles that changed, but discrimination that endured. Part of the wisdom she shared with audiences, students, all those musicians who came to her Sugar Hill apartment.

And while there had been plenty of doors closed to her in those five decades, Mary Lou Williams kept hers open to others.

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