Mary Lou Williams
The Stars Align for These Astrological Portraits
On a Sunday in 1945, jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981) told the listeners of her WNEW radio program that for each of the next twelve weeks she'd be premiering a new piece of music based on a different sign of the zodiac. Her basic idea, she wrote in the liner notes of what became her first extended work, was to write music that reflected the temperaments and traits of each sign, as represented by artists such as Art Tatum (Libra) and Lena Horne (Cancer), many of them her friends. "I have always thought of astrology as understanding one of the influences that molds man's destiny, and I have given the signs the musical interpretation which I feel they warranted."
She'd already written the first three before that broadcast. And then, writer's block descended. "I couldn't write any more, my inspiration had left me," she told a jazz historian. So she did what any alert jazz musician would: She made things up on the fly, composing while she was playing. Remarkably, the music never wanders: Ranging from old-fashioned stride to beautifully contemplative rubato fantasias, Williams explores themes that might have been in her composition notebook for years. "Aries," for one, is sublime, as is the drifting, vaguely disquieted introduction of "Cancer."
Williams did formalize the Suite, eventually drawing on her arranging experience with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy to create an orchestral score for a concert at New York's Town Hall in December 1945. But the versions heard here, which are mostly solo with bass accompaniment on some tunes, are more interesting—they're spare and wondrous examples of "spontaneous composition" that encompass the whole renegade history of jazz but never sound like a history lesson.
Released: 1945, Asch (Reissued 1977, Folkways)
Key Tracks: "Libra," "Cancer," "Aries"
Catalog Choice: Zoning
Next Stop: Duke Ellington: The Far East Suite
After That: Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy: Jukebox Hits of 1936–1949.
Book Pages: 865–866