This is my proudest achievement both as a photographer and as a presenter. Mary Lou Williams dwelt amongst the gods of jazz from her teenage years when she began her professional career. That would be in the nineteen-twenties. She played piano and wrote tunes and arrangements for Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy and went on to write for and/or perform with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and others, and remained a modernist as the music evolved. In 1942 she formed a band that included Art Blakey on drums. Monk, Bud Powell, and others hung out at her Harlem apartment and revered her. As did Cecil Taylor, who came up with the idea that I should present her in concert in Vancouver and got the two of us in touch. She came and played four nights here with bassist Wyatt Ruther. She was scheduled to play with Larry Gales but just days before the gig Larry’s wife dreamed he was in a plane crash and wouldn’t let him travel. She aslo played a concert for kids on the Saturday afternoon, which I have on tape and will post one of these days.
I brought Mary Lou and Wyatt to the CKVU-TV studios for an interview on the “Vancouver Show” a live, two-hour nightly broadcast of local affairs. They’d play a tune, as well, and when they practiced a little before going on the air I took this picture.
So I got to hang out with a true jazz legend for four days and I confess that I regret not taking the opportunity to ask her more about the glory days of the birth of this greatest music on Earth. Frankly, I don’t remember much conversation. (Fortunately, though, there is a great biography, which I highly recommend, Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams by Linda Dahl. Even if you have no interest in jazz history this book will fascinate you, plus the feminists among you will love it because you must realize that Williams was pretty much the only woman to make her name in the male-dominated jazz world, at least until Jane Fair came along. )
I made up for this lapse when Jay McShann came along a few years later. I had nothing to do with this gig, which was a week at the Anchor in Gastown. McShann came up around the same time as Williams, in what for me was the greatest period of jazz before the New York Fifty-Second Street bebop period of the mid-forties. Thirties Kansas City. I found out where McShann was staying and went to the hotel one day in the early afternoon. I didn’t call ahead, I just took my chances. I used the hotel phone to call the desk and ask for McShann’s room. He happened to be in and I just said I was no one in particular and could I just come up and hang out with him and he said sure, c’mon up and for a couple of hours we sat in his room talking about Kansas City. McShann knew Mary Lou of course. He was the first to hire Charlie Parker, as is well known. He talked about Bird, Mary Lou, Art Tatum, Basie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, all people he played with, hung out with, got high with, all personal pals and he loved jiust talking about all these people. It was one of the best moments of my life and maybe I should have had a tape recorder with me because I’ve forgotten ninety-nine percent of everything, although the one percent that’s left still electrifies me.
One thing I remember best, as I was leaving I said I had one more question.
I’ve read a lot of history of that time in Kansas City, about, for example, how you’d play dance gigs from six at night till six in the morning and then go and jam! Mary Lou Williams mentioned how they’d bang on her window in the early morning to say the piano player was worn out and packed it in and they needed another piano player and she’d get up and go take over. Was all that really true?
Yes, it was. Yes, it was.
How could you play a twelve hour gig and keep going, playing a jam session after that???
Ahhhh . . . . we were young.