New Mary Lou Williams Biography Sheds Light On Jazz Great

Pianist played with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Cecil Taylor.

A new 461-page biography of late jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams opens a window on a seminal, if underappreciated, artist whose 50-year career spanned virtually all the major movements of jazz.

"Morning Glory" (Pantheon Books), by Linda Dahl, the author of "Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women," will likely register as the definitive account of a musician who performed with Louis Armstrong in the '30s, avant-garde piano icon Cecil Taylor in the '70s and most significant jazz artists in the years between. A joyous, swinging player with a playful sense of composition, Williams was an influence on everyone from pianist Thelonious Monk to lauded jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, who focuses his new CD, Soul on Soul, on her work.

Duke Ellington, for whom Williams did some arranging, once wrote that she "is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and always have been just a little ahead. She is like soul on soul."

Dahl's book is a sympathetic yet unpedantic account of Williams' struggle to gain recognition for her music despite the twin biases of race and gender that permeated the music industry during most of her career. Dahl also recounts the spiritual journey that resulted in Williams' conversion to Catholicism.

Dahl interviewed musicians, jazz-industry insiders and scholars for the book, and she had full access to the Williams Estate's collection of correspondence, reviews and notices, telegrams, photographs and memorabilia.

This spring Williams' presence on the jazz scene seems to be approaching ubiquity. In addition to the Dahl biography and the Douglas CD, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., will present the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival — the most prestigious women's jazz festival in the country — May 11–13. The event will feature performances by pianist Marian McPartland, vocalist Sheila Jordan, saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom and many others, plus lectures and seminars.