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Mary Lou Williams, seen in this late-1930's photo with Kirk bassist Booker Collins, bolsters her position in the band with a patchwork of cushions laid across a kitchen chair. In the 1970s, when there was no adjustable piano bench,Williams always placed a thick telephone book on the bench to raise her hands to the right level for playing. This practice has also been part of the behind-the-keyboard technique of pianists Erroll Garner and Geri Allen.


The Andy Kirk reed section around the mid 1930s featured John Williams (second from left), Dick Wilson (third from left), and Johnny Harrington (far right).Check IDs with DM.


Dick Wilson, with Andy Kirk from 1935 to his untimely death at age 30 in 1941, was a significant voice in jazz and the band's star horn man. Mary Lou Williams recalled in a 1980 conversation with Oscar Peterson that Wilson was a great jam session player who energized other soloists to do their best playing. Wilson original conception and sound placed him on a level with the greatest tenor saxophonists of the day. This photograph, taken in a Kansas City studio, dates from around 1936, judging from Wilson's inscription to Williams.


Williams' manager, Fr. Peter F. O'Brien, S.J., assisted Williams in her classes at Duke University from 1977 to 1981. He recalled that Ben Webster's was the first name she brought up in lectures, workshops and demonstrations, so fond was she of his feeling and phrasing. Webster briefly played with the Kirk band in 1933. Webster, who gained immortality with the Duke Ellington Orchestra beginning in 1940, is seen in this vintage photo inscribed to Williams during his tenure with Teddy Wilson's fine band.


Don Byas was another tenor saxophonist whom Williams loved as musician and man. Byas' inscription, beginning with, "To Mary, the sweetest girl I've ever known" and continuing: "Here's hoping such a love as ours can never die . . . Yours forever, Don," show that the feeling was mutual. Byas gained valuable experience in the Kirk band from 1939-1940. Williams recorded with Byas for Asch in 1944 and French Vogue ten years later.


Williams' inscription to Byas, dated November 1, 1938 and found among her papers at the Institute of Jazz Studies, simply reads, "Best wishes, Mary Lou Williams." They would renew their friendship in the years Williams lived in Paris from 1952 to 1954.


Mary Lou Williams stood as the only woman near the top tier of Swing Era instrumental jazz of the 1930s. Seen here in 1936, with Andy Kirk (left) and singer Pha Terrell, Williams wrote dozens of original compositions and arrangements, setting Kirk's style, and played first-rate piano. Gradually, she turned her attention to composing extended works and also played a significant role in the bebop revolution.


"I didn't fall in love with men. I fell in love with sounds," Mary Lou Williams once remarked to her manager and confidant, Fr. Peter F. O'Brien, S.J. Harold Baker, a member of the Kirk band from 1940-1942 who gained renown with Ellington, became Williams' second husband in 1942. Baker, an early influence on Miles Davis, died of cancer in 1965, still married to Williams, though they had long since drifted apart. Williams left Kirk in 1942 and formed an unrecorded small group with Baker on trumpet. When Baker joined Ellington, she traveled with the band as staff arranger. Among the things she wrote were "Blue Skies," later called "Trumpets No End" and "Stardust," a feature for Baker.


A proud Andy Kirk stands to the left of the band that provided him a good run for twenty years. Although the band did not break up until 1948, its days of prominence were numbered from the time in 1942 when Mary Lou Williams left and relocated to New York.


Williams is shown arranging for Decca's Kansas City Jazz album in 1940. For Kirk, she arranged "Twelfth Street Rag" and Ellington's "Ring Dem Bells." For a small-group session issued as Mary Lou Williams and Her Kansas City Seven, she arranged two classic Bennie Moten pieces, "Baby Dear" and "Harmony Blues."
 
 
Home

Introduction

Collection at IJS

Early Roots

Kansas City & the Clouds of Joy

Modern Jazz & Cafe Society

William Gottlieb Photo Essay, 1947

Europe & Travels in the 50's

Chuck Stewart Photo Essay, 1957

Religious Conversion

Lioness in Winter

Discography & Related Links


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