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I was still looking for peace of mind, and I was determined to give up music, nightlife and all else that was sinful in the eyes of God. After that, I wouldn't play anymore.
Mary Lou Williams, diary entry, c. 1954
The year 1952 found Mary Lou Williams appearing with the singer Mildred Bailey, a Town Hall tribute, and in performances in Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. An engagement at the Downbeat Club in New York with drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Oscar Pettiford, though short-lived, offered promising future visions of her music. Williams had grown increasingly despondent due to lack of recent recordings, past failure to copyright her compositions, uneven management, and the toll drugs and alcohol had taken on the jazz scene in the late forties.

She reluctantly agreed to headline in the Big Rhythm Show of 1952, a British concert package kicking off in London with the Cab Calloway orchestra and dancer Marie Bryant. Though she had not expected to stay abroad beyond the two-week tour, she remained in Europe for two years, with London and Paris as her main locations. Williams' disappointment surfaced when it became apparent that the concerts were closer to British variety than a serious presentation of jazz. Tight British musicians' union rules, she realized, would stymie opportunities to more fully develop her English audience as she had first hoped.

 

However, Williams had second thoughts about returning to the U.S. Her fluency in traditional and modern jazz delighted her fans and opened doors to additional engagements and recordings. Melody Maker writer Max Jones, who befriended Williams after her arrival, helped her bypass union rules for appearances with British bandleader Ted Heath at the Palladium in January 1953. Around that time she also recorded the first a series of recordings for Vogue and performed in concert with Sarah Vaughan. At Max Jones' urging, she collaborated with him on an 11-part autobiographical writings for Melody Maker. She declined an offer from manager Joe Glaser to perform European dates with Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars in favor of plans (later scaled down) for a big band tour of the continent.

Concerts in Paris and Holland in June 1953 helped convince her to relocate in November to the French capital, where (she later wrote) she was happiest. There were no union rules in France to inhibit her music making. Williams was also overjoyed to meet up with old friends like tenor saxophonist Don Byas.

 

She moved into the Hotel Cristal on the Left Bank, where she kept company with such fellow luminaries as writers James Baldwin and Chester Himes, actor Canada Lee, singers Eartha Kitt and Annie Ross, and Baron Timme Rosenkrantz and his companion Inez Cavanaugh. It was also in Paris that she first met Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter and Nicole Barclay. Her Vogue recordings with Byas demonstrated that bop no longer dominated her playing, but had been fully absorbed into her style.

She performed for radio and television across Europe, but work was sporadic and money problems aggravated her psychological instability. One benefactoróCol. Edward Brennanóshowed Mary a small Catholic church with walled garden and statuary. "I found God in a little garden in Paris," she later recalled. Her depression deepened and, at one point she walked off a night club stage. When she returned to New York on December 15, 1954, it was with the vow that she would quit performing.

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pointer Mary Lou Williams in publicity photo, 1950s.
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pointer British band leader Ted Heath meets Williams upon her arrival in England. They appeared in concert at the London Palladium on January 25, 1953. Williams was hired to play with British bands to help loosen local musicians' union rules that prohibited American musicians from playing in Britain. Her original contract for European concerts called for a stay of nine days, but she wound up staying two years.
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pointer Williams and fellow pianist Marian McPartland at the keyboard in England in 1953. When McPartland began her long-running National Public Radio series, Piano Jazz, in 1979, she called on her old friend as her first guest and recorded an album of Williams' music in 1994 for Concord Jazz.
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pointer Williams signs autographs for British fans in 1953. Coverage in European jazz publications during this period prove that her overseas fans were aware of her contributions to jazz and treated her accordingly.
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pointer French travel papers dated July 28, 1954 show Williams entering the country for concert and recording engagements. Note that the papers bear her married name, Baker, although she and trumpeter Harold Baker were no longer living together.
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pointer Williams in Paris, where she moved in November 1953. Paris apparently agreed with Williams, who lived at the Hotel Cristal on the Left Bank. Among her friends in the expatriate community were such notables as Don Byas, Sidney Bechet, James Baldwin, Eartha Kitt, and Hazel Scott. "She knows everybody!" wrote her friend, pianist Aaron Bridgers.
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pointer Williams had a reunion with tenor saxophonist and Andy Kirk alumnus Don Byas, left, and Basie trumpeter Buck Clayton in Paris in 1953. Among the highlights of her time in Paris were records she cut with Byas for French Vogue the following year. "I must say that Paris was the happiest place for me," Williams said later.
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pointer Williams' passport shows she returned to the United States on Dec. 21, 1954. She was in the midst of a spiritual crisis and looking for a new way of life, even if that meant giving up music as she sorted out her next move. "I was still looking for peace of mind, and I was determined to give up music, night life and all else that was sinful in the eyes of God," Williams wrote in her diary. "After that, I wouldn't play anymore." As we shall see, she fortunately changed her mind.
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pointerMary Lou Williams with nephew Robert Mickles at Birdland in 1957. Although Williams had a high-profile career as a jazz musician, she always maintained strong family ties. Williams helped to raise her nephew in what turned out to be a long-term and often complicated relationship.
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pointer Three keyboard giants-Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams and Teddy Wilson-share a moment backstage at a Jazz Under the Stars concert in New York's Central Park in 1958. It was during this time Williams tried to resolve how to combine her new religious sensibilities with her art.
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pointer This photograph taken by Art Kane for Esquire magazine in 1958 captures Mary Lou Williams and other jazz royalty on a street in Harlem in what became one of the most famous photographs in jazz history. The picture became the subject of the highly acclaimed 1994 short film by Jean Bach, A Great Day in Harlem. ©Art Kane Archives
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pointer Mary Lou Williams poses with other Great Day participants in a photograph taken by Dizzy Gillespie. Joining Williams are (l-r) Ronnie Free, Mose Allison, Lester Young, Charlie Rouse and Oscar Pettiford.
 
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dot Collection at IJS

dot Early Roots

dot Kansas City & the Clouds of Joy

dot Modern Jazz & Cafe Society

dot William Gottlieb Photo Essay, 1947

dot Europe & Travels in the 50's

dot Chuck Stewart Photo Essay, 1957

dot Religious Conversion

dot Lioness in Winter

dot Discography & Related Links



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