JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers

JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers

The jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910-l981) served as a role model for many other women, players including the pianists Hazel Scott, Marian McPartland and trombonist Melba Liston, as well as several composers. Williams’ compositions spanned most of the 20th century, from stride through swing and bop to the avant-garde. She was fluent… Read more »

Written By

Linda Dahl

The jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910-l981) served as a role model for many other women, players including the pianists Hazel Scott, Marian McPartland and trombonist Melba Liston, as well as several composers. Williams’ compositions spanned most of the 20th century, from stride through swing and bop to the avant-garde. She was fluent in all of all of these musical languages, keeping at the forefront of musical developments. [Ed. Note: Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams details her remarkable career and life.]

She began playing semi-professionally while still in school as a preteen and was known as the “Little Piano Girl of East Liberty” in her native Pittsburgh. It was while working for the vaudeville show Hits and Bits in 1925 that she met her first husband, saxophonist John Williams. The two worked for Terrence Holder’s band (Mary Lou as deputy pianist and arranger), which was taken over by Andy Kirk in 1929.

Kirk and his Clouds of Joy made the first recordings of Williams’ compositions for Brunswick sessions in Chicago during l929 and l930. They include her debut for big band, called “Mess-a-Stomp”; she can be heard soloing on “Drag ‘Em” and “Nite Life.” The latter grabbed the favorable attention of prescient European critics like Hugues PanassiÈ, who wrote several early histories of jazz. Having avoided learning how to read music in school—she preferred to depend on her remarkable ear, ability to memorize, and “fake” ñ Williams turned to her fellow musicians in Kirk’s band for help with learning to write down her big-band compositions. It was time well spent. The fame of Kirk’s band, it has been said, owed a substantial debt to her distinctive arrangements and compositions. She was also his top soloist, impressing even the great Jelly Roll Morton.

Her big band charts and arrangements of material by others’ came to be prized by during the Swing era, from the bands of Earl Hines to Tommy Dorsey. These included “Walkin’ and Swingin,'” “A Mellow Bit of Rhythm,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” “Twinklin,'” “Big Time Crip,” “Scratchin’ in the Gravel,” and “Roll “Em,” sold to Benny Goodman for about 25 dollars. In the mid-l930’s, record producer and jazz promoter John Hammond and the powerful agent Joe Glaser heard Mary Lou’s music with the Clouds and became ardent partisans of her work. She would leave the band—and her marriage—by 1942.

A sample of “Our Father” by Mary Lou Williams’ scores
Photo courtesy Mary Lou Williams Collection, Institute of Jazz Studies

Moving through the l940’s, Williams’ compositions ranged from Swing era stylings—”Yesterday’s Kisses,” “Gjon Mili Jam Session,” and “You Know, Baby” (for Asch Records in l944)—to those which evinced deep understanding of the new, modern harmonies and rhythms then shocking the jazz world: bebop.

Williams actively encouraged Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, and Dizzy Gillespie. Powell and Monk became her close friends and often visited her apartment. The three even wrote a composition together, alas, never completed. But in the tradition of bebop borrowings, Monk based his famous “Rhythm-a-ning” on the second chorus of her “Walkin’ and Swingin;” he used the harmonic progressions from her arrangement of “Lady Be Good” for his “Hackensack.” Williams’ charts “Kool,” “Tisherome,” “Knowledge,” and “In the Land of Oo-bla-dee” (recorded by Dizzy Gillespie’s big band) were adventurous and unexpected, reflecting the new music.

Settled in New York from the early l940’s, Mary Lou worked ferociously, as a performer and composer. She had traveled for about a year, off and on, with Duke Ellington‘s orchestra to be with her second husband, jazz trumpeter Shorty Baker. She completed perhaps several dozen arrangements (including several of her own original compositions) for the Ellington band; Ellington had found himself caught short by a strike that barred him from performing his own ASCAP works until a settlement could be reached. She scored ìBlues Skies” for him and then arranged it a second time as a horn duel called ìTrumpets No More.”

That experience—she adored Ellington’s band above all others—combined with her attendance at his l943 Carnegie Hall concert of Black, Brown and Beige inspired Williams to write her own extended, jazz-based composition for the concert hall: The Zodiac Suite . This was something no black woman composer had yet achieved.

The twelve tone poems—one for each astrological sign—were generated by improvisation; she would render impressionistic portraits of people she knew born under each sign on piano during a weekly radio program she then had. An early recording of the suite for piano trio exists. Next, in December of l945, fresh chamber-jazz arrangements were presented at a Town Hall concert in Manhattan. Williams had to work on a shoestring budget, so much so that she copied many of the string section parts herself, music manuscript spread everywhere in her apartment. Six months later, the New York Philharmonic presented three movements of the suite at Carnegie Hall.

The Zodiac Suite was a groundbreaking composition in its day, combining Williams’ new experiments in modern jazz with recent studies she had made of Schoenberg, Debussy, and other European classical composers. She interpolated piano preludes and a Charlie Parker solo, blues and boogie-woogie, leaving space for improvisation. Predictably, there was friction between the classical and jazz camps of critics.

Apparently, it was one thing for a classically trained composer to use elements of jazz or folk music in their work, but quite another for a jazz musician to borrow from the classical cannon. Composer/critic Paul Bowles re-sharpened the red pencil he had used on Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige. He described the piece in a New York Herald Tribune review as an “ambitious and sometimes amusing project [that] was neither fish nor fowl,” and seemed incredulous that it was “often purely improvisional in character, although it had all been painstakingly orchestrated.” It was, he went on, “another attempt to bring about a wedding between French impressionism and American jazz, a perfectly valid concept, but it necessitates much more knowledge of the achievements of latter-day serious composers than is generally evident.”

Colin McPhee, writing in Modern Music, complained: “[W]hen she turns to composing in a ‘modern, experimental’ way, the results are naive and unfortunate.” Jazz critics on the other hand were far more interested in and understanding of Williams’ experiments.

Sadly, this type of composing wasn’t going to pay the bills. Williams was not only performing all the time, but trying to write music that would make her some moneyó a hit, in other words, even a modest hit. She’d already had a number of popular compositions simply taken from her or sold for a pittance.

In l943, Mary Lou had been invited to join ASCAP and became the first African American woman to do so. Throughout the 1940s, she fought (largely unsuccessfully) to regain the copyrights and the royalties that had largely eluded her for a host of compositions in the 1930s. Less than a decade later she was broke and quit ASCAP out of frustration; she did not get the help she had hoped for. The sad fact was that she had not registered many of these pieces with the U.S. Copyright Office, so that she could not easily claim ownership.

Like so many talented musicians, Williams had often to finance her own projects. She turned her back on professional music making from the late 1950’s into the l960’s, but started her own record company and became interested in writing jazz with explicit spiritual themes. She was a devout Catholic. On her own initiative, she went to Rome, determined to meet the Pope and obtain a commission to write a jazz mass. After a lot of what she called “maneuverings,” she did so, writing a votive mass. Although a number of jazz artists have written jazz based
on spiritual or religious themes – Duke Ellington wrote sacred music for the concert hall – Williams’ jazz mass was the first to be performed in the Roman Catholic Church, and has been performed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. She wrote a cantata, Black Christ of the Andes (1963), and two other masses. Mary Lou’s Mass (1970) was choreographed by Alvin Ailey.

In the last decade of her life, Mary Lou Williams became the artist-in-residence at Duke University. Although she was extremely busy again as a performer, she tackled a new large-scale composition called The History of Jazz for Wind Symphony (specifically for Duke’s symphonic group). Williams had long had a love affair with what critic Barry Ulanov had called the “strikingly unorthodox instrumentation” of woodwinds, French horns, trumpet, trombone, strings and rhythm in Zodiac, some decades earlier. Now, in the late 1970’s, she was able to complete several sections of the new work for wind instruments (including one new to her, the English horn) before she died from cancer in l98l.

A number of female composers in jazz have followed Mary Lou Williams’ ambitious example in their writing for large-scale combinations. As Ulanov said in 1946, defending the vision behind The Zodiac Suite in Metronome: “This is the way music must go from here. Jazz cannot exist on jive and kicks and nostalgia alone; classical music will stop short unless it is infused with the warmth and drive and spontaneity of jazz. Mary Lou Williams, even if she was not altogether successful, made the case for this position almost unassailable.” “Jazz” for Mary Lou was an ever-expandable musical arch. A jazz composer, she taught by example, should follow her dream and not be limited by anything but her own tastes, abilities, and energy.

Melba Liston
Photo courtesy the Institute of Jazz Studies

Melba Liston (l926-l999) the trombonist, is perhaps the outstanding example historically of a non-pianist female jazz composer for big bands. (Although Liston’s writing talents was especially notable in the kissing-cousin art form of arranging – that not very well understood and under-appreciated art form which deserves a piece unto itself.) Liston composed and arranged for a range of musical personalities, from Dizzy Gillespie’s band, which she joined in the late l950’s (and arranged pieces of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite , among other Williams’ compositions), Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Motown, but most fruitfully, Randy Weston, her collaborator from l960 (the album Uhuru Africa ) to l993 (Volcano Blues ).

Toshiko Akiyoshi
Photo courtesy the Institute of Jazz Studies

A non-American born composer has enriched jazz with her own heritage. Writer, bandleader and pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, (born in Manchuria, China, of Japanese parents) emigrated to the U.S. in the l960’s, studied at Berklee, and went on to lead a band from the l970’s that featured, mostly notably, her compositions incorporating elements of traditional Japanese music into otherwise bop charts. Her album Kogun , from l974-75, and Tales of a Courtesan, used Japanese themes – folk-song elements, susumi drumming and in the latter album’s case, subject matter. Courtesan draws upon the inherent conflict in the lives of these women who were given special treatment and education in Japan at a time when women generally received no education; yet the courtesan was a virtual prisoner, or slave if you like, of her profession, groomed entirely to please men. Akiyoshi characteristically writes very full charts – she always uses a 5-part harmony for strength of sound. With the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, she performed and recorded for l0 years based in Los Angeles. Since 1983, the orchestra has been based in New York, where with l8 albums and many awards under her belt, Akyoshi continues to perform around the world, including regularly at Birdland in Manhattan.

The American composer, Carla Bley, largely self-taught, like Mary Lou, and fond of all forms of jazz, co-led big bands from the 1960’s on, first the Jazz Composers Orchestra and later the Liberation Music Orchestra, that feature her compositions. Among Bley’s well-known works are A Genuine Tong Funeral, the jazz opera Escalator Over the Hill (1968), and the album Social Studies (l981). Dubbed the “Queen of the Avant-Garde,” she never forgets to swing in her wide-ranging compositions and displays a wide knowledge and appreciation of all kinds of American music. Recent works have included Carla Bley Big Band Goes to Church (l996) and the album 4 x 4 .

Maria Schneider is widely recognized today as another composer-bandleader of successfully-received original compositions that fall between avant-garde jazz and modern classical. She received a grant to study with trombonist-composer Bob Brookmeyer and sought out an apprenticeship with Gil Evans in l985, working with him until his death in l988. Big bands, it was presumed, were all but dead in the water. Schneider persisted, putting together a band, grants, commissions, places to play, and in the process finding an audience for her music, confounding the nay-sayers. Schneider was initially discouraged from composing for big bands not because she was a woman, but because it was thought crazy for anyone to attempt this in the 1980’s. Her success, also, focuses not on the fact that she’s a female (or perhaps better said: that she’s not a man), but rather on the fact that she’s a jazz big-band composer with fascinating ideas and the will to carry them out. And this, I say, is progress indeed for everybody who loves the music.

From JAZZHERS: A partial hyperHERstory of women popular songwriters and jazz composers
By Linda Dahl
© 2002 NewMusicBox