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By Bob Weinberg
Cecilia Smith hammers home the historical import of a jazz matriarch.
Cecilia Smith wasn’t deeply familiar with Mary Lou Williams when she was approached to perform a concert of the jazz matriarch’s music in 2000. A friend, who was a member of Our Lady of Victory Church in Brooklyn, proffered the invitation to the vibraphonist, also a Brooklyn resident. At that point, Smith knew Williams’ classic composition “What’s Your Story Morning Glory,” and that she had written for big bands at the height of the swing era, but little else.
"Her name never came up,” says Smith, relating that Williams was not part of the curriculum when she attended and later taught at Berklee College of Music in the 1980s and ’90s. “I think that goes on at most colleges and universities. She’s not part of the historical conception of this work. And she really should be.”
The church put Smith in contact with Father Peter O’Brien, manager and spiritual advisor to the late pianist, who established the Mary Lou Williams archives at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers. Smith’s understanding of the scope of Williams’ work expanded dramatically as she pored over the voluminous collection of artifacts. “I couldn’t believe the amount of boxes with catalogs, big band charts, choral charts,” she says. “Then he showed me the recordings, and he showed me the VHS tapes of the various television shows she had been on. And I was surprised — she was on Mr. Rogers’ [Neighborhood, 1973]. She was on Sesame Street .”
But somewhere along the line, Williams, whose writing and arranging were prized by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and who died in 1981, seemed to lose some of her cultural relevance, or at least her familiarity, beyond the jazz cognoscenti. Not that the jazz community hasn’t fought back: TheNew York Times’ Giovanni Russonello referred to Williams as a “Mount Rushmore figure in jazz” in a recent piece surveying jazz artists and academics about their favorite MLW tunes; bassist Jeong Lim Yang, pianist Chris Pattishall, and more recently, pianist Aaron Diehl, on respective recordings, revisited her acclaimed Zodiac Suite; a jazz festival in Washington, D.C., has carried her name for more than a quarter century; and Carol Bash’s 2015 documentary, The Lady Who Swings the Band, presents an excellent three-dimensional portrait of the artist.
Smith is certainly doing her part. When we spoke in late June, the vibist’s recording with her Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project, Small Ensemble Repertoire: Volume One (Innova), had risen as high as No. 5 on the JazzWeek Jazz Chart and No. 3 on the NACC college radio jazz chart.
Fronting a quartet of longtime colleagues, Smith employs her four-mallet technique on a set comprising her original “sketches” alongside Williams compositions and songs with which Williams was associated — including “Body and Soul,” which, Smith points out, Williams was among the first to arrange for big band. Contrastingly, Smith performs the piece accompanied solely by pianist Lafayette Harris Jr., one of two tracks on the album to feature the duo. During the pandemic, the friends, who both live in Brooklyn, became quite prolific with their online video performances and developed a strong rapport. Harris “volunteered” his teenage sons to carry her vibes back and forth between their homes.
Smith’s deep dive into the Mary Lou Williams archive precipitated a decades’ long preoccupation. From her initial explorations, she was able to develop two solid sets of music encompassing Williams’ boogie-woogie pieces, a couple of devotional works and a selection from the Zodiac Suite. She then received an invitation from the New England Conservatory of Music to lecture about and perform Williams’ music, which led to a residency of about a year-and-half. In 2006, armed with an NEA grant, Smith assembled an all-star big band to play the music under the Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project banner at the Kennedy Center’s Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.
Grants from Chamber Music America and the American Composers Forum, the Innova label’s parent organization, were integral to Smith’s latest recording. But it hasn’t always been easy to obtain funding. “One guy said to me, ‘Oh, Mary Lou Williams, a lot of people didn’t care about her when she was alive,’” Smith recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Are you kiddin’ me? They have a major festival named after her!’ But here’s the thing: Every time somebody does [a Williams tribute], it’s like, ‘Oh, yes, Mary Lou Williams!’ She didn’t get the attention she always deserved. It was really kinda pissing me off. She devoted her life and her mind [to her music], and you hear about Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, she should be [mentioned] within the same breath as those icons.”
Williams came to prominence in the 1930s with the Kansas City outfit Andy Kirk’s 12 Clouds of Joy, following her husband, saxophonist John Williams, into the band. She became essential to Kirk’s sound, as both an instrumentalist and writer-arranger. Her star rose accordingly, and the swing kings — Ellington, Goodman and Louis Armstrong among them — clamored to work with her. By the tail end of the ’30s, she was the toast of the jazz world.
After leaving Kirk, Williams delved into the burgeoning bebop movement, and her Harlem apartment became a hub for musicians who benefited from her guidance. Among that crowd was Thelonious Monk, whose central riff for “Rhythm-a-Ning” was lifted from Williams’ “Walkin’ and Swingin.’” “Did he borrow it, or did he steal it?” asks Smith, who quotes the infectious phrase on her new album’s opening number, “Sketch 1 — Truth Be Told for MLW.”
A move to Paris in the 1950s proved difficult for Williams, whose progressive concepts were not embraced by audiences, and she suffered economically and emotionally. Mental health challenges that had plagued her as a child recurred. Returning to the U.S. and embracing Catholicism provided comfort, and Williams’ music took a turn for the spiritual.
Williams never regained her earlier cachet, as she straddled classical and jazz realms, a perilous terrain for Black artists, let alone Black women artists. Confronting racism and sexism from the beginning of her career, she soared in spite of them. Ultimately, though, the weight of stay-in-your-lane-ism became hard for her to bear, something made plain in the harsh criticism that greeted her ambitious 1945 Zodiac Suite. “It’s at the back of some people’s minds,” Smith posits, “that women cannot be this good at something. I tackle that all the time as a vibes player.
“You have to understand the psychology of how people felt about women back [in Williams’ heyday], especially in the jazz world,” she continues. “‘How do you feel about women being in your band? How do you feel about women in general? Do you view women as only someone who’s in the home taking care of children, taking care of you?’ This type of psychology has gone back and forth as to the role of women [in society], but especially in jazz because it was dominated by men. And social consciousness, I don’t believe, played in [Williams’] favor the way it should have.”
Featured photo by Chris Drukker.