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If we are to make progress in modern music, or, if you prefer, jazz, we must be willing and able to open our minds to new ideas and developments.
Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Record, November 1947
modern.jpg By the time Mary left Kirk in May of 1942, she had divorced John Williams and married trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker, then also with Andy Kirk. It was when Baker was hired by Duke Ellington that Mary decided to go with him. But after some dozen years, Williams was ready for a change of musical scene. For a while, Ellington had her travel with the band as a member of his arranging staff. But the marriage didn't last, and Mary decided to settle in New York, where she was hired by the astute Barney Josephson, owner of Café Society, the Greenwich Village night club that featured outstanding jazz, blues and comedy—unique for its day—catered to integrated audiences.

Mary thrived in an environment that included Billie Holiday (whose rendition of "Strange Fruit" became a sort of theme song in the club catering to a leftist crowd), Josh White, trumpeter Frankie Newton, dancer Pearl Primus, all of whom became special friends. When Josephson branched out and opened his Café Society Uptown, Mary alternated between the two venues.

It was through Josephson's assistance in 1945 that she got her own weekly radio broadcast on WNEW, Mary Lou Williams' Piano Workshop. Her program figured into Mary's composing one of the more interesting compositions (and reflecting Duke Ellington's movement toward creating extended works), The Zodiac Suite. Williams introduced movements on a weekly basis in 1945.

 

She composed three ahead of radio time, but as she later told New York Times writer John S. Wilson, "I was just without ideas . . . So what I did to finish (the suite) . . . I composed while I was playing. I'm at my best composing that way." In addition to its broadcast premier, The Zodiac Suite was originally issued in 1945 on two 78 RPM records produced by Moe Asch, an enthusiastic fan of Mary and producer of Folkways Records. The suite was presented in Town Hall on December 31, 1945.The following June, she performed three movements with the 70-piece New York Pops Orchestra during the Carnegie Hall Pops Series.(The suite was not performed in its entirety again for 55 years, until October 2000, as part of programs associated with the exhibit, Mary Lou Williams: In Her Own Right.)

This period in Williams' life is fascinating on another score: her interest in modern jazz and in collaborating and mentoring of such bebop pioneers as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Tadd Dameron, among others. As photographer William Gottlieb noted in an essay accompanying his gallery of photographs, taken in 1947 in Mary's Hamilton Terrace apartment and posted on this web site, she turned her abode into a veritable "salon" for the advancement of modern jazz. She also credited her musical development in the forties to Milton Orent, an NBC staff bassist and arranger who wrote the lyrics for Mary's "(In the Land of) Oo-Bla-Dee" and assisted with the orchestration of The Zodiac Suite. "He was about 30 years ahead in sound."

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yellow2.gif Williams in her Hamilton Terrace apartment in a 1944 photograph taken for an Asch Records and featuring the pianist in an unusual trio with trumpeter Bill Coleman and bassist Al Hall. Williams' apartment was a veritable music laboratory. ©William P. Gottlieb, From the Collection of the Library of Congress.
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yellow2.gifPostcards from the legendary Café Society reproduce murals in Barney Josephson's club in New York's Greenwich Village, where Billie Holiday introduced Strange Fruit in 1939. Williams had several extended engagements at Café Society. Josephson again played an important role in Williams' career beginning in the fall of 1970 when he opened The Cookery, also in the Village.
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yellow2.gif Mary Lou Williams at Cafe Society, 1944-45
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yellow2.gif In 1945, Williams greets fans in the studios of WNEW, where her weekly program The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop was broadcast. Her Zodiac Suite was performed in a 1945 concert at Town Hall; she played three movements from this work with the 70-piece New York Pops Orchestra during the June 1946 Carnegie Hall Pops Series.
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yellow2.gif Mary Lou Williams' Zodiac Suite was reissued by Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of when it was recorded in the spring of 1945. The compact disc contains five alternate takes from the original recording session.
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yellow2.gif Found in the Mary Lou Williams Collection was this promotional design for The Zodiac Suite by the renowned artist David Stone Martin. Martin worked for Moses Asch when jazz impresario Norman Granz hired him to produce what became some of the most distinctive graphic album art in jazz for Granz's labels.
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yellow2.gifAt one point, Williams wrote an arrangement of "Scorpio," one of the movements from The Zodiac Suite, to feature three pianos: Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and herself. This unrecorded arrangement offers moot testimony to Mary Lou Williams' adventurousness as a composer and arranger.
 
 
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