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Ladies Swing the Band

A reflection on women who know stuff

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

The month of March is Women’s History Month in the United States. This was not always so. Indeed, the notion that women were important historical actors has been regarded as absurd for most times and places in human history. It remains treated as absurd in all too many places, parts of the US included. But in March 1987, after waves of feminism and much lobbying, the US Congress declared March to be Women’s History Month (the National Archives offers a useful perspective on this history).

Why March? Because March is the month of International Women’s Day (March 8), as it has been since the International Socialist Women’s Conference first declared it so in 1910 (a declaration rendered “official” by the United Nations in 1975).

Why Women’s History?

Because women.

Because women have largely been written out of history, and modern feminism is about women demanding to be heard and to be recognized, because women are co-creators of everything human, and because women have accomplished very important things on “the stage of history” that deserve to be recognized. That Women’s Day was originally a radical idea that emerged from the socialist movement should be surprising to no one who understands the role that the modern socialist movement played in advancing many democratic causes. That it has become “mainstreamed” in a great many places, including the US, is a testament to the progress that has been made by feminists over the past century.

And yet obviously, much remains to be done. And so Women’s History Month is not only about recollecting a past, but about engaging a present and envisioning a more egalitarian future.

The recent emergence of the Me Too movement is one important form the current struggle for women’s rights and gender equality has taken in the US. Others include struggles to fight sexual harassment in the service industry and to unionize the industry in order to improve the wages and working conditions of the often largely female workforce, struggles for reproductive freedom, and struggles against domestic violence. These struggles are global and transnational. They touch the biggest questions of law and public policy and the most personal features of intimate relations. They also have serious implications for the organization of professions whose claim to “meritocracy” has long been marred by double standards and sexism.

In my profession, political science, renewed attention is being paid to questions of gender inequality. Sexual harassment remains a serious issue, as a recent American Political Science Association survey indicates, and as some high profile cases suggest (see here and here).

Perhaps even more pervasive than sexual harassment are practices that systematically disadvantage women: timetables of promotion and tenure that present particular challenges for women during their child-bearing years; publishing practices, linked to methodological and thematic biases, that result in the under-representation of scholarship by and/or about women in most major journals (I am very proud to say that the journal I edited for eight years [2009-2017], Perspectives on Politics, is one of the few top journals that is not marred by this pattern); and “gender citation bias” — systematic practices of citation that result in scholarship by women not being cited as frequently as similar scholarship by men. In response to these patterns, in 2017 a new group called Women Also Know Stuff was formed by a terrific group of women colleagues, who declared in a July 2017 manifesto that “We are political scientists. We are women. We know stuff. And we are deeply concerned about the implicit bias in our profession that minimizes and marginalizes the voices of women.”

In every sphere of life, women know stuff.

Mary Lou Williams was a woman who knew a lot of stuff about music.

She was a jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and performer whose musical career spanned almost every important development in 20th century jazz. Born in 1910, she began performing professionally at the age of 12, and continued to play and to write music until her passing, at the age of 71, in 1981. Early in her career she made a name for herself as a composer, arranger, and pianist for Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, a successful Kansas City-based swing band. While working for Kirk she wrote many hits. Among the most famous was “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory,” recorded in the late 1930’s with Andy Kirk:

Another of her famous tunes was “Little Joe, From Chicago,” also first performed, in 1938, by the Kirk band:

This song, which became a swing standard, was made famous by Nat Cole in 1944 (I would bet that most people familiar with this song have heard this version):

As Linda Dahl explains in her terrific Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, Williams eventually left the Kirk band, in part because of personal issues, in part because she felt she was not getting her due, but also because Kirk was often displeased by the advanced harmonics of her piano playing. She, who had perfect time and was always on top of the beat, was so often ahead of her time and out place in the man’s world of jazz. Williams eventually made her way to New York City, living in Harlem, and writing and arranging songs for every major big band leader of the day, including Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Red Norvo, Tommy Dorsey, and Cootie Williams. She worked extensively, over many years, as an arranger for both Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington (by my count, she arranged approximately 30 tunes for Goodman and 40 for Ellington).

Williams was one of the most important writer-arrangers and pianists of the swing era, though outside of musical circles her name was not well known. Perhaps even more importantly, she was a central figure in the transition from Swing to Bebop, as the new music famously pioneered by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was called. Her Hamilton Terrance apartment in Harlem became an all-hours salon where most of the major boppers regularly congregated, including Gillespie, Parker, the young Miles Davis, Oscar Pettiford, Errol Garner, Mel Torme, and Sarah Vaughn. She was an important mentor to Tad Dameron, a young bop pianist who was also one of the most important composers of the Bebop era. Williams was both a social and a musical supporter, colleague, and teacher for this group. As she said: “’I’d leave the door open for them if I was out. Tadd Dameron would come to write when he was out of inspiration, and Thelonious Monk did several of his pieces there. Bud Powell’s brother, Richie, who also played piano, learned how to improvise at my house. And everybody came or called for advice. Charlie Parker would ask what did I think about him putting a group with strings together? Or Miles Davis would ask about his group with tuba.”

It is thus no surprise that she figured prominently, as one of only three women among over fifty men, in the very famous “Great Day in Harlem” photograph taken by Art Kane in 1958. (Click here for an interactive version of the photo that shows who everyone is.)

Williams was herself an active contributor to the Bebop revolution as a pianist and as a composer/arranger.

One of her classics is “In the Land of Ooh Bla Dee,” famously recorded by the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1949:

She worked closely as a composer, arranger, and pianist for Benny Goodman during this period, when he tried, with minimal success, to incorporate the more complex melodies and harmonies of Bebop into his music. Her “Lonely Moments,” recorded by Goodman in 1947, gives a sense of her talent as a big band arranger and also her challenges in mixing harmonic complexity with Goodman’s own more simplistic approach:

Williams was also a seminal influence on the two most important jazz pianists of the Bebop era, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Her home was often their haven. She supplied them with emotional support, money, food, friendship and, perhaps most important, music lessons! That’s right. According to a number of sources, including her friend Dr. Billy Taylor, Williams helped the two pianists who are considered the founders or modern jazz piano work on keyboard technique and advanced keyboard harmony. Monk and Powell were both musical geniuses, as was Williams, and the influences among the three were surely mutual (Monk and Powell were also very closely linked with another unsung jazz great, Elmo Hope, whose widow Bertha Hope is herself a very talented pianist dedicated to keeping alive her late husband’s legacy). But Williams’s important role in the evolution of Bebop has been largely unheralded until recent years.

As Dahl points out in her biography, this lack of recognition plagued Williams throughout her career. Perhaps even more disturbing was the lack of credit she received for many of her songs, arrangements, or riffs.

Two examples are discussed by Ted Goia in his recent bookThe Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire. The first relates to one of Thelonious Monk’s most famous compositions, “Hackensack.” Here is Monk’s original 1954 recording:

“Copping” someone else’s “licks” is a common jazz practice, and that during the Bebop period in particular there was an extensive amount of such “copping.” It has thus long been appreciated that Monk’s tune was “adapted from” a tune by the great swing tenor saxophone player Coleman Hawkins, called “Rifftide,” which was recorded in 1945:

Indeed, this “overlap” makes perfect sense, especially since Hawkins was one of the swing players who welcomed many of the newer Bebop players, and indeed Hawkins regularly played with Monk at Minton’s in Harlem in the mid-1940’s. But what is less well known is that Hawkins’s riff was in fact composed by Mary Lou Williams in an arrangement of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good” that she recorded, with Hawkins, in 1944. Listen:

Similarly, Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” (1957), a variation of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” is one of his most famous tunes:

Less well known is that in 1936 Williams wrote, arranged, and recorded a tune called “Walkin’ and Swingin’” that is also based on Gershwin’s so-called “rhythm changes.” Listen to the Williams-arranged horn soli at 1:17, and you will hear the melody of “Rhythm-A-Ning.”

It is important to reiterate that this kind of “copping” was legion among these musicians, and that gender surely does not furnish an explanation. Indeed, in the two examples above, Monk is “copping” Williams who is herself “copping” the Gershwin brothers. This method of writing variations, or “contrafacts,” on standard pop tunes, was central to Bebop composing. It is also important to note that Monk in particular was a prolific composer of especially complicated and idiosyncratic tunes, with a piano style that was also sui generis. At the same time, the similarities between the Monk and Williams lines in the two tunes above is especially striking, especially in light of the fact that Williams’s part in the creation of these tunes is basically unknown except to aficionados. Linda Dahl observes that while Williams was sometimes annoyed by the “copping” of her music, she was often generous in her sharing. Dahl quotes her quite matter-of-factly: “Musicians used to come and sit beside me because they’d hear during a set maybe a couple of new things that they could use.” Dahl also points out that she was particularly untroubled when her close friends, especially Monk, drew from her, and that on one occasion she indeed reharmonized Monk’s famous composition “Round Midnight,” which she titled “I Love Him” (Dahl says that Williams “was throwing a musical bouquet to Monk by reworking an admired tune”).

Here is Monk, performing solo his very famous ballad, originally written in the 1940s:

Here is Williams’s “I Love Him,” recorded in 1955:

Williams is not typically mentioned in the “pantheon” of jazz greats. That club has long been all-male. And sexism has long pervaded the jazz world (see herehereherehere and here). Indeed, just last year a major controversy was sparked by controversial statements about women jazz artists made by two very prominent male jazz musicians. The New York Times ran a fine piece at the end of 2017 entitled “For Women in Jazz: A Year of Reckoning and Recognition.” More recently, The Conversation posted a fine piece on how “Women jazz musicians are using #metoo and taking a stand against sexism.”

At the same time, progress, halting to be sure, has been made. In 2010, the centennial of Williams’s birth, there were a number of tributes to her contributions. Geri Allen, the great pianist, said of her: “Her fearlessness and self-determination, I think that is an inspiration, when you see a person so clearly confident in their voice. Because of her and her excellence, and because of her commitment to this very pristine level of artistry, my generation of players who are women don’t have to go through that kind of resistance. I can’t imagine it, to tell you the truth.” Allen served as the Musical Director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective, dedicated to reviving interest in Williams’s important work.

In 2006, she produced a terrific recording of William’s “Zodiac Suite,” entitled “Zodiac Suite Revisited”:

And in 2014 she played a tribute concert to Williams at Birdland in New York:

Allen, herself a major jazz artist and a feminist icon within the jazz world, passed away last year at the age of 60.

Like Williams, she probably did not receive the acclaim accorded to some of her contemporary male counterparts. But unlike Williams, she was widely recognized in her lifetime, and achieved real status, and authority, as a musician and as an educator and artist more generally. According to her obituary:

Ms. Allen was the rare jazz musician of her generation to have an academic background in musicology as well as in jazz performance. She went on to spend 10 years as an educator at the University of Michigan, becoming a sought-after mentor to young musicians, and in 2013 she returned to the University of Pittsburgh as the director of its jazz studies program. … In 2014, she helped found the All-Female Jazz Residency, a summer program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center for young jazz musicians in their teens and twenties. … She received an array of accolades over the years, including a Guggenheim fellowship; Denmark’s Jazzpar Prize (she was the first woman to win it); the African-American Classical Music Award from Spelman College in Atlanta; and the first “Lady of Soul” prize for jazz, awarded by the television show “Soul Train.”

Allen was a leader and role model for new generations of female jazz musicians, such as Terri Lyne Carrington and Esperanza Spalding, who are making their mark and receiving the recognition they are due. In the same way, Mary Lou Williams paved the way for women like Allen. One of the joys of writing this column was having the opportunity to really pay attention to her music, and her life, and to appreciate her brilliance as well as her bravery. She persisted. She may have been ahead of her time, as a woman in “a man’s world.” But she helped to make that world. And she made great music. And, as the recent documentary by Carol Bash makes very clear, she always really swung the band.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Isaac

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