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You had to have a strong left hand in those days or they wouldn't pay attention to you.
Mary Lou Williams
kansas14a.jpgThe musically well-schooled Andy Kirk soon realized Williams' for inventing original piano pieces. One of her first was "Froggy Bottom," a blues. Kirk encouraged her as an arranger, and helped her improve her musical reading and writing skills. The band's fortunes rose in late 1929 when talent scouts from Brunswick Records made a field trip to Kansas City, recording talent in a local hotel. They recorded eight sides (two as by John Williams and his Memphis Stompers, the others as by Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy). Three of the recordings featured Mary's compositions and arrangements ("Lotta Sax Appeal," "Mess-A-Stomp," and "Froggy Bottom") and she was at the keyboard all of them. The following year, Williams recorded her first piano solo, "Drag 'Em," in Chicago in April 1930.

Aside from a 1931 Victor recording with Blanche Calloway (Cab's singing sister), The Clouds of Joy would not record again until 1936, some five years after Mary took over regular piano duties and proved to be the musical brains of the outfit. (Other standout soloists included tenorman Dick Wilson, the underrated clarinetist Johnn Harrington, trombonist Ted Donnelly, and trumpeter Harry Lawson, a master of the blues.)Kirk vocalist Pha Terrell, a high tenor vocalist, produced the band's greatest hit, "Until the Real Thing Comes Along," in 1936.

 

The song's success facilitated the recording of many Williams instrumentals. Among the 109 issued Kirk sides made until Mary left the band in may 1942, there are such Williams gems as "Steppin' Pretty," "Walkin' and Swingin," "Mary's Idea," "Scratchin' the Gravel," including a well-earned tribute, "The Lady Who Swings the Band. "Under Mary's direction, the Kirk band, which emerged on records from Kansas City just before Count Basie, had a softer, gentler touch than the Basie crew, but was just as deeply rooted in the blues, always a key element of Mary's music.

Her brilliant arranging for Kirk didn't go unnoticed, and Mary did plenty of freelance work for other leaders, Benny Goodman, for whom she produced one of her classics, "Roll 'Em," and the excellent "Camel Hop." For Lunceford, she penned "What's Your Story Morning Glory (which, as she eventually managed to prove legally became the basis for the hit song "Black Coffee"), and for Ellington, she did a rousing version of "Blue Skies" that became known as "Trumpets No End." Other clients of Williams during this period included Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Glen Gray and Tommy Dorsey. But her work with the Kirk crew-as close-knit as an extended family, musically and personally-has a very special flavor and ranks with the best of the Swing Era.

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yellow2.jpg Mary Lou Williams as she appeared about the time she first recorded under her own name in April 1930. That session for Brunswick produced two sparkling piano solos, "Nite Life" and "Drag 'em."
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yellow2.gif Andy Kirk, seen here in the early 1930s, led one of the more notable Southwest territory bands based in Kansas City, a jazz scene that produced such luminaries as Count Basie, Bennie Moten, Lester Young, Jay McShann and, later, Charlie Parker. It was not long before Kirk realized that the future of the Clouds of Joy was in the gifted hands of Mary Lou Williams, though she was never adequately compensated for her immense contributions.
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yellow2.gif This historic photograph taken at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia in 1930 shows Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy in the service of Cab Calloway's sister, Blanche, seen doing a split with baton in hand. Mary Lou Williams is visible at the piano, with Andy Kirk behind her, John Williams to Kirk's left and trombonist Floyd "Stumpy" Brady leaning on piano at far left. Dancer Bill Bailey, Pearl's brother, at left, is holding a bowler hat. The Kirk band recorded with Calloway for RCA Victor in Camden under the name Blanche Calloway and Her Joy Boys.
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yellow2.gif This program from the Pearl Theater engagement advertising Blanche Calloway and Her Clouds of Joy suggests that Calloway attempted to appropriate Andy Kirk's band during their six-month-long date at the theater. For this engagement, the great singer Ethel Waters starred. When Pearl Wright, Waters' regular pianist went home for her mother's funeral, Williams accompanied the singer.
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yellow2.gifEthel Waters was surely jesting in this inscription when she lauded the young piano powerhouse as "that light piano player frenzy." Williams, using the parlance of the day, knew her success as a pianist in the big band era lay in her ability "to play like a man.".
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yellow2.gif Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy in 1931, with Williams (seated center), Kirk (second from left standing), Ben Thigpen (far left), John Williams (third from right), Johnny Harrington, (clarinet), and Big Jim Lawson (trumpet). Asked DM about further ID.
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yellow2.gifHenrietta Randolph (left), wife of trumpeter Irving "Mouse" Randolph, Mary Lou Williams, and Mabel Durham on the road with the Kirk band in the early days. Williams stayed with the Clouds of Joy from 1929 to 1942, establishing her reputation as one of the stalwarts of jazz.
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yellow2.gif Mabel Durham and Mary Lou Williams in Baltimore during a six-month Kirk band road trip in 1930-1931.
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yellow2.gif Mary Lou Williams-pianist , composer, and arranger-when she was in her prime with the Kirk band ca.1936. During this period, Williams also produced arrangements for some of the most popular bands of the day, such as Les Brown, Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway
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yellow2.gif The addition in 1936 of singer Pha Terrell, signaled an upswing in the Kirk band's fortunes, most prominently Terrell's version of the ballad "Until the Real Thing Comes Along." Williams can been seen at the keyboard as Kirk leads the band. The Clouds of Joy's great tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson is immediately to Williams' left.
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yellow2.gif Mary Lou Williams looks like a confident leader of the pack in this publicity photo of her with Andy Kirk's brass and reed sections.
 
 
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dot.gif Introduction

dot.gif Collection at IJS

dot.gif Early Roots

dot.gif Kansas City & the Clouds of Joy

dot.gif Modern Jazz & Cafe Society

dot.gif William Gottlieb Photo Essay, 1947

dot.gif Europe & Travels in the 50's

dot.gif Chuck Stewart Photo Essay, 1957

dot.gif Religious Conversion

dot.gif Lioness in Winter

dot.gif Discography & Related Links



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