Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hello again, Mary Lou

On a beautiful afternoon 35 years ago this month, some fortunate souls at my college, myself included, gathered in the lounge of a campus building and listened to a genius.

Mary Lou Williams (that’s her on the right, from about 1946) was scheduled to perform in concert the next evening and at a Mass – which she had written, on a commission from the Vatican – the day after.

But on this Friday afternoon she was conducting what was billed as a “workshop” on jazz. That wasn’t quite accurate; it was more of a lecture and performance.

Not that I objected.

I'd taken a few years of piano lessons in grammar school. The nun who taught me figured out that I had a fairly good ear (my first “arrangement,” in the third grade, was a right-hand rendering of that notorious jingle, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” – even as an 8-year-old I was a sellout).

She also thought I had an above-average sense of rhythm. So she tried to steer me toward jazz. Which was fun but didn’t work out as well as it should have because I was such an uptight moron, afraid of making a mistake; and God forbid I should try to have fun at the piano.

After a few years the nun moved on and I decided to stop taking lessons. I didn’t touch the piano much over the next few years, but then I was introduced to – and immediately captivated by – the works of Scott Joplin (below); this was several years before “The Sting” made him a household name, more than 50 years after his death.

So I began to play the piano more often and even tried writing my own rags.

And now, on that Friday afternoon, under the impression that jazz and ragtime were the same thing (I told you I was a moron, didn’t I?), I was expecting Mary Lou Williams to play some Joplinesque stuff.

But in her opening remarks in this very informal setting, Ms. Williams almost immediately set me straight, saying that ragtime, Scott Joplin music, wasn’t what she was going to play. (Not that she despised it – I didn’t get that impression – but it wasn’t her thing, as we kids used to say way back then.)

The eerie thing, though, was that as she said this she looked directly – and pointedly – at me.

I suppose this could have been a coincidence. But, although Ms. Williams and I had never met and never did meet, I can’t help thinking that it wasn’t.

My theory: Just as some people supposedly have something called “gaydar,” which lets them know whether a certain person is homosexual, jazz musicians – especially ones as hip as Ms. Williams – have something called “square-dar,” which sets off internal alarms whenever the musician is anywhere near anyone who is tragically unhip. If that’s true, Ms. Williams’ interior alarms must have been buzzing like crazy; had we been in a David Cronenberg movie, her head surely would have exploded.

She went on to play – for the better part of an hour, as I recall – accompanied by a bassist. At one point, while she was deeply into one of her solos, she looked up at him, and the two of them grinned. They’d just struck the musical equivalent of pay dirt, a sort of musical intimacy that could perhaps be verbalized with only one word: joy.

And I think she also managed to work in some stride piano and boogie-woogie, which to me are at least first cousins to ragtime.

I've been thinking about Ms. Williams because over the weekend I found a DVD of a performance she gave a couple of years later at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

It’s very well done. For one thing, whenever I watch a TV performance of pianists like Ms. Williams, I look for the shots of their hands at the piano, to see how they do it. Whoever made the video not only did a good job of this but also added close-ups of her face. You see the concentration, eyes closed or just about closed, as she literally composes on the spot. Sometimes you see sweat. Once in a while, a lot of sweat. But that’s to be expected – although she obviously enjoys what’s she’s doing, it is, of course, damned hard work.

Then, after the number, a beatific smile. A smile of (here’s that word again) joy.

Put one hundred cats in a room, sit each of them at a typewriter, and they will produce a perfect transcript of “King Lear” several eons before I can achieve even one-fifth of Ms. Williams’ mastery.

I suppose this should depress me, but it doesn’t.

It doesn’t depress me because when I sit at the piano these days – I play much better now, with a fairly good amateur right hand balanced by a terminally hopeless left – I sometimes, in the heat of improvisation, surprise myself, at my own level, and it is then that I think I understand what Ms. Williams and the bassist were feeling that day.

And now, if I’ve been doing my job right, chances are you want me to shut up so you can go find some of Mary Lou Williams’ music.

I’m way ahead of you, with a selection from that video: “The Man I Love,” from YouTube. Especially watch what she does with her left hand. It fascinates me, even if my own left almost hurts as I watch it. Enjoy.

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