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By Matt Micucci
While exploring Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite, Aaron Diehl gained insights into the life and music of an under-appreciated jazz pioneer.Matt MicucciZodiac Suite is your fourth release for Mack Avenue, and of course, it’s also a celebration of the legacy of Mary Lou Williams. Can you tell us about her and how you discovered her music?
Mary Lou Williams was an absolute pioneer. She experienced pretty much the entirety of the evolution of what we call jazz music. She started playing in vaudeville in her early years, and she later joined the Andy Kirk Band with her husband, [saxophonist] John Williams. In fact, she wasn’t a permanent member initially. She was basically a substitute. She had a lot of experience in Kansas City, and traveled with the band around the United States.
Eventually in the ’40s, she settled in New York where she met younger musicians who ended up being the faces of bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell. And they really looked to her — especially Thelonious Monk — for guidance and musical advice.
Her life in music represented transformation. She was constantly transforming her approach and being open to the burgeoning styles that were emerging. And so the Zodiac Suite really is one small part of her evolution, but a significant one. She was very influenced by Duke Ellington and wrote a number of arrangements for him over the years; she’d heard “Black, Brown and Beige” in 1943 and wanted to try her hand at a more expansive long-form work.
Ultimately, that’s how the ZodiacSuite came around in 1945. She recorded for Moses Asch’s Asch Records, and that recording was well received. Each movement is dedicated to a different Zodiac sign, but also to her friends who had those signs. Duke Ellington was “Taurus,” Benny Goodman was “Gemini,” and “Aquarius” was dedicated to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So it was a very personal piece for her, I believe, and also representative of the direction she was going in, in terms of her various influences, including people like Paul Hindemith, Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. She had a chamber ensemble arrangement, and [my] album is this arrangement of the chamber ensemble orchestration.
That premiered on New Year’s Eve, 1945. There were mixed reviews about it and the consensus was that she was frustrated with the fact that it did not get enough rehearsal time. You can hear it on the recording. There’s a recording of the actual premiere. There’s a lot of sloppiness in the ensemble. And so she never revisited this arrangement in her lifetime. And that was the impetus behind [my] recording this during the pandemic. I found the score and the parts that were published, and I decided to try my hand and see what could be done with it. And there was a lot of cleanup work that had to be done, even with the published score, because there were a lot of mistakes and errors.
So it definitely was a pretty big task. And I wouldn’t have really been able to do this without the help of the Knights Orchestra and Eric Jacobsen. It’s a marvelous chamber orchestra and [comprises] mostly people from Gen Y, Gen X, and they’re very open to different approaches. They don’t just play the canon repertoire, but they also collaborate with many types of artists. So this was a perfect ensemble for this kind of project. We spent the better part of a year, year and a half — even during the pandemic — figuring out this arrangement and how we could make it work, and how we could perform it and ultimately record it. So this was the result of this collaboration between myself and my trio, soloists including [trumpeter] Brandon Lee, [vocalist] Mikaela Bennett and [saxophonist] Nicole Glover, and the Knights Orchestra.
And you also worked quite closely with the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, right?
Yes. I knew Father Peter O’Brien, who was executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. He was really the one to have introduced me to her music. It was sort of serendipitous, because I grew up in a predominantly Black Catholic church in Columbus, Ohio. When I moved to New York, I finally settled as a member of St. Joseph of the Holy Family in Harlem, a predominantly Black and Latinx congregation. And Father O’Brien I met at Juilliard my first year. There was a Mary Lou Williams concert that took place, and I wasn’t a participant in that concert, but I did meet Father O’Brien briefly.
And then, years later, at St. Joseph of the Holy Family — this is around 2006, I suppose — Father O’Brien was there as a guest priest, and he remembered me. I was playing for masses there at the time. And he came up with the idea of incorporating some of Williams’ liturgical music into the mass there, including her “Mass for the Lenten Season.” So we did a few collaborations over the years, Father O’ Brien and myself, including a centennial concert for Williams in 2010.
Father O’Brien died in 2015, and I sort of lost contact with the foundation. Geri Allen was the head of the foundation, and then she passed away [in 2017]. So I lost touch with the foundation and within the last year, I’ve been able to reconnect with them, [through a] wonderful man named Herb Jordan, who’s now the head of the foundation.
It's been really great reconnecting with the folks there, sharing in our passion for Mary Lou Williams and making sure that the world understands her significance, understands her contributions— she sacrificed a lot in sharing her music. She had a conversion to Catholicism in the early-to-mid ’50s, partly resulting of a break she needed to have from the music industry and all of its challenges. So she wrote a number of really wonderful sacred works. Hopefully I’ll have a chance at some point to record them. I recorded “Mass for the Lenten Season” with [pianist-vocalist] Damian Sneed. But it was never released because of Father O’Brien’s passing. Maybe there’ll be an opportunity to release those recordings if the master still exists, or maybe re-record them. There’s a lot of work by her that still needs to be unearthed and shared with the world, for sure.
You’ve described Zodiac Suite as a significant work within the artistic evolution of Mary Lou Williams. Can the same thing be said about its importance in your own musical evolution?
Sometimes I look to Mary Lou for guidance through her music and through her story. I can’t say there’s an exact parallel, but Mary Lou’s objective throughout her career seemed to simply be allowed to play her music with great musicians and not be relegated to roles that undermined her abilities as a serious, dedicated practitioner of her craft. And there were all kinds of stories about her being pigeonholed, and sort of comparing and contrasting what it means to be a man playing the music and what it means to be a woman. And especially at that time, being a Black woman and having so many disadvantages.
Despite all of that, she didn’t want to be simply reduced to that. She wanted to be accepted on the terms of being a great musician and composer. And she was constantly challenged throughout her life. And I think she’s really a role model in the art of self-reliance and resilience. I think that’s important, that someone like her is an important reference, and understanding that it really is a long game in this vocation of music making and that it’s essential to continue to be encouraged.
Working on Zodiac Suite especially has given me a boost of excitement and dedication to this craft. And having the opportunity to collaborate with many, many great musicians, there’s nothing better than that.
I also wanted to ask you about the theme of astrology and the Zodiac, and how you creatively connected with that while working on the project.
I’m not a big devotee of astrological signs and neither was Mary Lou Williams, from what I’ve understood. I think it was more of a way to dedicate these compositions to her friends. And there’s just a general interest in astrology that people have. It’s very smart, hooking people into the world of the music, because it’s like, “Oh, I’m a Libra. I’m an Aries and I was born on such and such a date.” So it’s sort of like an entry, a gateway drug, if you will [laughs], into the music. I’m a Virgo. Some people say that I exhibit very characteristic traits of a Virgo. But I can’t say that I’m an expert on astrology, by any means, even after working so long on the Zodiac Suite.
The concluding track of the record, “Pisces,” features operatic vocals. How did you come to include operatic elements within that composition?
That was something that was originally envisioned by Williams. It’s on the original premiere. And there’s a folk singer, Hope Foye, who sang at that premiere. In the manuscript, there’s no record of the lyrics. They must have been added later. And it’s presumed that the lyrics were written by Mary Lou Williams. At the time the publisher was preparing to release his score, they were trying to figure out what exactly the lyrics were, because it’s somewhat inaudible sometimes on the recording. I mean, this was a fairly rugged recording. It wasn’t always clear what Hope Foye was singing.
So the publishers contacted her, and she was living, I think, somewhere in California at the time. She was very old, but she was able to supply them with her recollection of the lyrics, so that’s how this vocal part came to be. The woman who sang on [my] recording with the Knights, Mikaela Bennett, is a fantastic soprano. And she really has both the elements of opera and a deep understanding of musical theater that I think is very rich, and I thought she was the perfect voice for this last movement.
In a press release for the album, you said that it’s important to keep advocating on behalf of artists who are no longer with us and to keep their music in people’s ears. Can you elaborate?
It’s important because we have more context for understanding what it means to be who we are. Our interactions as human beings, our common culture, the different cultures that we have, these things ultimately evolve. But at the core of it, we’re fundamentally all the same throughout history. And when you see a composition like the Zodiac Suite, you understand that that was a certain moment in Mary Lou Williams’ life, in her compositional aspirations. She’s also someone who really could speak to many different aspects of the character of human emotion, of the feeling that’s so important in this music.
Even with her evolution, she was able to keep those essential elements. She always wanted to keep the Black folk tradition in her music, whether it was stride [piano] as early as 1930 with “Night Life,” or something much later in the ’60s and ’70s. And she always kept those roots there. And when we’re talking about unearthing music that could have been written decades ago, I find that there’s still a common thread between the music that was created then and some of the music that’s created now. So it’s essential to have new works and to celebrate people who are creating new works and finding their path and their voice, but also to not forget about all the people who contributed before us, our musical ancestors. And to celebrate them and to learn from them, and to always remember how essential they are to the foundation of our musical language.
Featured photo by Evelyn Freja.