This essay has been excerpted from the forthcoming book Liner Notes For The Revolution: Black Feminist Sound Cultures by Daphne A. Brooks, which will be published by Harvard UP in 2020.
The genius jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams once said, “I get my inspiration from modern things.” According to the writer Farah Jasmine Griffin, Williams counted the New York City subway as one of her artistic incubators, where “musical ideas and sounds” were “delivered” to her while in motion. She was known, by the time she had reached her thirties and achieved great prominence and influence in the 1940s Harlem jazz world, as the kind of daringly spontaneous artist who could emerge from the underground, “arriv[ing] at the club ‘with the complete arrangement worked out,'” resulting in a train anthem like “8th Avenue Express” to rival the Duke’s love letter to public transportation.
Out on the dirt roads between Memphis and Oklahoma City, other forms of “modern” transport animated Williams’ craft at a much earlier age and in a drastically different place, as she traveled with her mother-in-law and friend from one set of gigs to the next, as she would innovate and ride the wave of swing and the boogie woogie next big thing with her then band Andy Kirk and the Dark Clouds of Joy. What did it mean for Williams to “roll” from one blood red state to the next at one of the crucial, early moments in her career as an avant-garde jazz pianist who moved from innovating swing to bebop to orchestral experimentalism? More to the point, how did that movement perhaps inform and shape her experimental philosophies about music making, a subject she would explore in her written work and interviews at various points in her career?
Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in 1910 in Atlanta, Ga. but raised in Pittsburgh, where she showed signs of singular, “clairvoyant” musical talent as a toddler laying down rhythms on the family’s reed organ while accompanying her mother, rolling as a tween with her loving stepfather to juke joints where she studied the moves of Lovie Austin and Ma Rainey, revealing her gift of perfect pitch by high school and taking to the Chitlin’ Circuit by her teens. From her earliest years, Williams was on the move, independent, “alone but not lonely,” as Griffin puts it. She “knew solitude, welcomed it and the gifts it bore. [She] welcomed the rare chance to hear [her] own thoughts, before the city stirred…” once she settled in Harlem for most of the ’40s.
For Williams, jazz was a vast and mighty tool of expression and one that, she believed, could serve as a crucial and necessary portal for black peoples to commune with and convey the complexities of their past. On many an occasion, she set to writing — informally in unpublished essays and letters but also at times in public forums — in order elaborate on the ways in which her own “modern music” was both a statement in aesthetic “progress” and yet, likewise, constitutive of old forms.
Frequently and notably and with a kind of steady consistency across her career, Williams wrote about the black music tradition as an historical phenomenon, born out of suffering and yielding “the greatest and only true art … in the world”: that of the Spirituals and that which came after. Likewise, she often returned in her writings and interviews to the charge of the jazz musician to uphold that tradition through a combination of “feeling,” “natural ability” and just enough instruction and mentorship to set alight as a committed experimentalist. Williams proudly assumed this mantle (one self-authored essay boasts that “no one else has actually changed and developed along with the music through all its history”) and extolled the gospel of this truth in typewritten works with titles like “Don’t Destroy the Roots,” “Has the Black American Musician Lost His Creativeness and Heritage in Jazz” and “Jazz Is Our Heritage.” Such meditations sometimes bluntly (“the definition of a genius is one who does everything without being taught”) and sometimes cheekily (“Mary Lou was flexing that manly privilege of experiment”) addressed these very topics at hand in a contemplative and conversational style of prose which often mixed personal anecdotes with opinionated declarations about her artistic beliefs.
But Williams also held forth with a kind of antagonistic fascination about topics such as the rise of rock and soul, the recording industry’s failure to appreciate the brilliance of black art, and the fallacies of music criticism which, at least in one searing essay, she ultimately likened to a racket dominated by jealous and expedient writers. By the time of the 1978 release of Embraced, the historic concert album that she recorded with avant-garde trailblazing fellow pianist Cecil Taylor, Williams was reflecting on the ways that she had wrestled for two decades plus with what she had previously felt to be “a perverted force … coming into the music” as a result of everything from “foreign composers” to “commercial rock” Before resolving that “one should play all forms of music,” she acknowledges in the notes that she had, at one time, believed that these “forces” might “destroy the true feeling of Jazz.”
These were issues with which Williams had been wrestling for some time. In a hand-wringing letter to Phyl Garland who, in 1977, was working on an Ebony feature on Williams, the pianist fretted over the need to “improvise new ways” of doing jazz so as to win back the youngsters who, she argues, “lost the heritage playing rock, avant garde (sic), black magic exercises… (Aretha & James Brown are the only real mccoys…)”
But in spite of her ambivalence towards the popular, Williams gave thought to other genres and particularly the ways that an unremarked-on blackness drives these forms. “Rock…,” she argued, “is the new era of rhythm and blues and was created by Black Americans…. Even with the loudness of this music there was a great deal of soul (feeling)…. When the commercial world grabbed it..[.] It became amateurist (sic) and lousy.” The exploitation of and disregard for deeply influential and innovative black artistic labor is a thing that Williams reads as endemic to the recording industry in ways that foreshadow Nicki Minaj’s Twitter philosophizing. In a letter to veteran jazz music critic Leonard Feather, she emphasized her point, insisting that the “black musician has been badly treated as far as grammys & awards …. We (blacks) could still be suffering for this …. We black musicians became embittered because” the black artist “not getting enough credit for what was created thru his suffering.”
Her grievance towards the music industry establishment is most palpable in an undated handwritten essay in which Williams comes at the music critics, the writers who hold court about the merits of musicianship but, from her disdainful viewpoint, know little about the work of instrumental excellence and, particularly in the intimately-connected world of jazz, are in pursuit of their own interests, their own cultural capital. These individuals, these “frustrated never[-]made[-]it critic[s] who once inspired (sic) to be a musician but had no ears so decided to write about it,” are the bane of the music itself, since that sort of “burning jealousy” will seemingly ruin the fellowship of jazz which Williams promoted throughout her career. The dream of a critic “who listens to a record broadminded… as if he was playing it,” is a praxis that Williams promotes as an alternative approach to thinking jazz, experiencing it on a vista that lets in all of “the historical genres running through it.”
I want to linger on Mary Lou Williams’ own intellectual labor. Can we look to Williams’ philosophies of her own artistry — that is to say, not just her discussions of what she saw herself as doing with and by way of her musicianship but also her ideas about the labor of her musicianship altogether? This we might do in order to continue to acknowledge her myriad talents as a critical as well as a performative force in jazz. This we might do in a bid to call attention to the black woman musician as theorist of her own forms, as critic of her own aesthetic pursuits and innovations.
Williams, we know, was beloved and revered by her peers and the players then and now who looked to her as a paragon of excellence and artistic endurance. But “theory” is not a word that one associates with her. Consider this, though: Williams was a consummate storyteller about her long career, her many pursuits, the challenges and exciting turns that she embraced with passion at various moments in her life. These tales are the grist for her artistic practice, and they offer vernacular commentary on the meaning of life in motion. To call her a theorist, then, is to be reminded of Barbara Christian’s revolutionary claim at the height of 1980s academic canon wars that “people of color have always theorized — but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic.”
The Mary Lou Williams of the jazz interview form and the one behind the piano is our theorist, a woman who reveals herself at every turn as someone who was driven by the belief that black music, like Audre Lorde’s poetry, “is not a luxury…. not only dream and vision,” as Lorde puts it in the classic essay with which Christian closes her own work, but “the skeleton architecture of our lives… the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”
So turn back the clock past her veteran days serving as mentor to many. Long before she became the grand dame whose uptown apartment served as the gathering ground for the likes of Duke and Dizz and Monk and numerous others, she was an 18-year-old member of Andy Kirk’s swing ensemble, newly married to fellow musician and bandmate John Williams and accustomed, from her years on the TOBA, to the bluespeople itinerancy of a band on the run. With all that under her belt, plus a dose of youthful, north-of-the-Mason Dixon Line naiveté, she stared the perils of Depression-era, apartheid America back in the face with a startling insouciance that put her in danger on multiple occasions. As her biographer Tammy Kernodle describes it, Williams, during her heady early years of touring, was prone “to forget[ting] how blacks were expected to act in the segregated South” — some of which had to have come as the result of her unusual experiences growing up as a musical prodigy first in Atlanta and then Pittsburgh. Gigging with musicians in the fifth and sixth grade (“they’d come to Pittsburgh… come by and pick me up…. I went to all these little cities like Springfield, Ohio… Indianapolis”), drawing crowds on her family’s porch that even made fans of the neighborhood police (“I’d play a concert for them. If I was out late at night by myself, coming from a [show], they’d stop and bring me down in a patrol car to the house”), she developed something of a comfort level with risk and a kind of steely practicality undergirded by insistent artistic determination and everyday ambition — all of which came in handy when, for instance, at parties where she played she encountered drunken boys emboldened by “their parents hav[ing] gone to Europe.”
Her touring life opened her up to both perilous as well as sui generis circumstances. From falling asleep on a streetcar in Memphis (where she and Kirk’s band had set up shop for several months in 1928) and failing to make way for white passengers to daring to gig in roadhouses where patrons threatened to lynch her to eluding an overzealous “fan” who’d once plotted to kidnap her, Williams kept “rolling,” as the title of one of her most famous tracks would have it. “I had in the blood in me like a gypsy,” she famously claimed. “I wanted to out and play” Even still, however, serious threats always hung in the air. It is well known, for instance, that Williams survived a sexual assault on her way to a recording session in Chicago and just as known is the fact that the gritty Williams remarkably still, in the immediate wake of this horror, made her way to the studio on the very same day to record two of her first compositions, “Drag ‘Em” and “Nightlife.”
Against this volatile and sometimes outright brutal backdrop, our woman at the piano nonetheless took to the road in one of the most thrilling first-person accounts of a black female musician behind the wheel that we have for the record: From her epic Melody Maker interview sessions published in 1954, Williams matter-of-factly carries us with her on the journey from here to there:
I worked off the outstanding engagements, then set out to join John in Oklahoma City, 700 hard miles away. He had left our Chevrolet for me to make the journey in, and with John’s mother and a friend I hit the highway. The Chev wasn’t much of a ‘short’ to look at. It looked like a red bath-tub in fact, but ran like one of those streamlined trains on the Pennsylvania railroad, and was the craziest for wear and tear. Unfortunately, we had miles of dirt and turtle-back roads to travel, and these excuses for highways were studded with sharp stones. To top all, it was August and hot as a young girl’s doojie. Every 40 or 50 miles we stopped to change tyres (sic) or clean out the carburetor. As my passengers were strictly non-drivers and non-fixers, I was in sole command. We got along somehow, and after what seemed like weeks of blow-outs and fuel trouble we fell into Oklahoma City. Considering it was surrounded by every description of oil, well, the place was a beauty spot. But the smell of gas… wow!
Williams’ relationship to the car clearly differs, in drastic ways, from that of the New Frontier warriors who would come long after her. Her narrative shows no interest in the cruise-with-me-baby braggadocio of Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’s “Rocket 88,” one of those early rock records from 1951 in which men find joy in the automotive object as the sign of “progress and compensatory prestige,” as described by Paul Gilroy in Darker Than Blue: On The Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Nor is Williams’ description of life on the road a speed demon’s intoxicating pursuit of escalating velocity that motors her toward oblivion.
Instead, as she recounts it, she is 18 and out on the Jim Crow frontier, accompanied by mother-in-law and friend (neither of whom have any driving or mechanic skills of which to speak), navigating “700 hard miles” through the dog days of summer, in a part-clunker, part souped-up, versatile magic red bath-tub bus contraption, weathering the unpredictability and the inefficiency of this modern object owned by the newlyweds. A “fixer,” “a driver” in “sole command,” Williams takes the non-escapist, pragmatic view of car travel that conveys compelling information about her relationship to questions of freedom, movement and adventure that, likewise, reflect her fundamental approach to music-making. One need only think of the ways that she figures her journeywoman language on her 1955 recording, A Keyboard History, in which she declares that “to bring this history to you I had to go through muck and mud…” to get a sense of the ways that this kind of trope permeates her repertoire. Outback travel laced with debris, thick with obstacles, the constant threat of catastrophe, risk enacted in the service of something greater than oneself, risk on behalf of the ensemble: This was Mary Lou’s jam ethos performed on behalf of her sisters in the car with her and eventually and ultimately for the greater black publics whose existence and worth she sought to articulate and honor by way of her musical life.
Her reflections on the resilience and resourcefulness of her own road travel spirit are, of course, not without their own lexicon of romance. Yes, one detects a bit of the kind of erotics that Cotten Seiler describes in his gripping study Republic of Drivers wherein turn-of-the-century narratives of female drivers flirted with automobility’s “transgressive,” “sexualized” energies. In the early years of car culture, as Seiler points out, savvy, New Woman-era ad campaigns promoted car culture as holding out the promise for women to access a form of technology that was not (yet) a tool of domestic labor. In “using that technology,” he observes, “many women derived a type of pleasure different in nature from the fulfillment of a gender imperative.” For women of means (white and monied enough to have access to wheels), the car might serve as “an extension of the self — a sort of powerful prosthetic device’,” a source of “both titillation and anxiety.” In this context, there were those critics who feared that cars might one day “supplant” men as “the object of female desire,” that “‘cranking without effort'” might serve as its own form of fulfilling auto-eroticism.
But Williams’ tale is less about sex (notwithstanding her mildly ribald heat and hooch metaphors) and more about craft, that tremendously undervalued and undertheorized realm of the creative process when it comes to charting the histories and narratives of black women musicians in particular (and black women performers more broadly). Inasmuch as Williams’ remarkable Melody Maker interviews return again and again to her “chops” — how she derived them, how she wielded them in late night cutting sessions, besting her fellow musicians, how these chops gave her cred in a man’s man’s man’s world from a young age forward, her driving anecdote showcases her own determined mastery of the instrument, her insistence on coaxing it again and again out of its sputtering, exhaustive state, her endurance, flexibility, adaptability in relation to the machine. It is a portrait of the woman artist as a high-wire act problem-solver ever-so-rarely rendered in the artist’s own words, and her fearless engagement with technology, her full-on immersion in idiosyncratic forms — be they mechanical or instrumental — are a testimony to her wonkish genius and her virtuosic innovation. If, as Paul Gilroy insists, Jimi Hendrix could take his instrument and “shif[t] and sculp[t] temporality itself so that his willing listeners were transported from one time to another,” what could Mary Lou do with the piano? More to the point still, how did she theorize the cultivation of her own mastery?
We know that, coming off of that journey, as she puts it, “out of [her] mind,” Williams goes “without sleep to make the rehearsal the next morning” with what was then bandleader T. Holder’s outfit, the Dark Clouds of Joy (soon to become Andy Kirk’s 12 Clouds of Joy). Here she marvels over the band’s non-vaudeville-cooning “musicianship,” their uncompromising “respectability,” as she puts it. Moving with the band to Kansas City in 1929, still the “unofficial member” with the boogie-woogie skills, the so-called “boss piano player” fell into a musical scene that, as Kernodle reminds, “encouraged the utmost inventiveness and adventurousness among the players. And it was there in the Eighteenth and Vine “nightlife” of that city where Williams evolved into “a composer and an arranger.”
By 1930, when she recorded two distinct solo performances while in Chicago with the Clouds — almost unfathomably, in the immediate wake of her attack — she had accrued the kind of turbulent knowledge of a blues traveler. Those two works evoked the nature of life’s lurching unpredictability: “Drag ‘Em,” a slow rolling through-the-streets minor anthem, and “Nightlife,” a convivial ode to the joys of uptown nocturnal revelry that, as Kernodle describes it, “highlighted her ability to improvise in the Harlem stride style” Both tracks clock in at just under three minutes in length and both frame the question of movement around the assured work of Williams, who leads us, in the case of “Drag ‘Em,” from the sound of measured, minor-tone playfulness to flirty, gradually ascending yet oh-so-tentative merriment. Williams called “Drag ‘Em” essentially a blues, but as she works the trills in the first 30 seconds of her performance, we are made privy to the ways that her itinerancy across the keys is its own form of commentary about the pleasures as well as the pressures of migratory experience. It is a track that dances listeners through fits and starts, through quick change shifts in mood, through a Langston Hughes-ian “Weary Blues” spiral that weaves back and forth between sorrow and catharsis. If nothing else, it is an Ellisonian tale of looming catastrophe transformed by Williams’ ability to swing us in the last thirty seconds of the track to the end of the line. In contrast, the hurly burly of “Nightlife” finds Williams capturing a universe of moods associated with sociality in the dark — rollicking encounters, bustling passages, quickened pursuits of delight — all of which escalate in anticipation as she frenetically climbs the scale in the first third of the track. At one minute and thirty seconds in, she introduces an arpeggio that opens the song onto another affective field, shifting us into another key of the life of the night, as if breaking through to another layer of subcultural energy.
Both tracks offer us a portrait of the black woman artist as driver playing through the changes yet bucking the “apparatus” of automobility that Seiler rightly and trenchantly critiques. If in the early 20th century, “automobility emerged as a ‘technology of self,’ organizing a compelling mode of self-government anchored in liberal notions of freedom,” if we construe the literal act of driving as hyper individualistic, hyper masculine, as bound up with “sensations of agency, self-determination, entitlement, privacy, sovereignty, transgression, and speed,” Williams’ mobile compositions tell us something about the way that the automotive as an aesthetic, as a feeling, as a rhythm — has a different kind of currency in relation to her jazz ethics, the codes by which, in part, a player recognizes the self as mutually constituted in relation to the ensemble.
Having already managed her way across dirt roads, confronting and repairing the hazards of the machinery at her disposal, she cultivated a framework for attacking obstacles that translated into her artistic approach to music-making. Mary Lou Williams took the energy and charged complexity of mobile life and turned it into the backbone of her early repertoire. In this way, we might think of her as having played through, on the two aforementioned compositions and tracks, a meditation on the idea and ethics of her musicianship, the praxis of her art. Think of these songs then as Williams’ own performative theories of her sound. From this standpoint, her use of auto themes and aesthetics held little in common with what would later become rock and roll co-architect Chuck Berry and company’s “‘strong faith in mobility as a guarantee of dignity, democracy, pastoralism, and equal opportunity,’ and … African Americans’ claim to citizenship…,” as Cotton Seiler wrote — quoting a 1951 Ebony editorial — in Republic of Drivers. Rather, her blues, her stride, her boogie woogie, her swing, her eventual bebop, her figurative driving odysseys in sound we might think of as rejecting the “procedural participation” of 1930s standard road driving and the still-to-come Eisenhower interstates. Instead, Williams’ roaming repertoire is the vehicle that carried jazz publics to new temporalities and new, increasingly demanding sites of experimental possibility across the long arc of her career. Perpetually in motion, she was leaving dust tracks for her fellow — if ever so different — sister travelers just down the road behind her.