Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 9, 2010
Last night, my friend Dan Aldag led the HSU Jazz Orchestra in a fantastic concert of works by Mary Lou Williams—including some amazing charts that Williams scored for the Ellington band but that Duke apparently just sat on. The show was one of dozens of events around the country marking the centenary of the great composer and arranger’s birth.
I think I’ve proven that I’m not above stretching to make an unlikely connection between kaiso and just about any other subject you could name. But while Mary Lou Williams was one of the most stylistically versatile composers in the history of American jazz, she never, in her long and productive career, pulled a Sonny Rollins (or a Randy Weston, or a Hazel Scott, or…). Not that she couldn’t have. Williams was also one of the most influential and well-connected figures in the history of American jazz. As Dan reminded the audience last night: her New York apartment was like the Jazz Loft before there was a Jazz Loft. Everybody who was anybody came by to hang out there and drink in the atmosphere. Among those whose careers she fostered and whose composing she nurtured were fellow pianists like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk—and Herbie Nichols, whose idiosyncratic writing did in fact draw on the music of his West Indian (Trinidad and St. Kitts) parents, among other sources.
I don’t know how many degrees of separation to score that as, but I think I can get even closer. In the early 40s, Williams began a long, loyal, and fruitful association with Moe Asch, founder of Asch, then Disc, and finally Folkways Records. Asch was never known for his business acumen, and he could be an irascible skinflint. But his dedication to documenting “folk” music—and for Asch that umbrella covered jazz and blues as well as all sorts of ethnic, folkloric, and lefty “people’s” music—was unstinting, and to Williams he was extraordinarily devoted; he gave her the sort of money, studio time, and artistic latitude that he afforded few others, at least not consistently. Asch’s stable in the 1940s also included a number of calypsonians: at various points he recorded the U.S.-based Sir Lancelot, the Great MacBeth, and the Duke of Iron, as well as Lord Beginner and (most famously) Lord Invader. For a time, as biographer Peter Williams tells it, Asch’s studio became a kind of “open house” for musical cross-fertilization, a place where Woody Guthrie would rub shoulders with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry…and Mary Lou Williams. While this never produced a Mary Lou Williams-Lord Invader mashup, it did put her on wax with both gospel singer Nora Lee King and folk singer Josh White, a good friend with whom she had often shared the bill at Café Society in Greenwich Village.
(Asch was also tight with the fellow travelers of the People’s Songs collective, although he was a bit standoffish about their political platform. The Songsters, whose numbers included Alan Lomax, Charles, Pete, and Toshi Seeger, and a host of likeminded singer-songwriters, are famous in calypso circles for having produced the 1946 “Calypso at/after Midnight” concert at Town Hall in New York. That show was part of the long-running “Midnight Special,” a series of sit-down concerts which complemented their more freewheeling “Hootenannies.” At the latter, Lord Invader shared the stage with Josh White and other folk and blues singers on more than one occasion.)
Williams’s calypso connection is more prosaic, or rather, graphic. One of the artists she introduced to Asch wasn’t musical but visual: her friend and former lover (there seem to have been many men in Williams’s life who fit that description) David Stone Martin. Martin would become an iconic figure in American graphic design, in large part for his distinctive album cover art: his 1950s jazz covers for Mercury, Clef and Verve practically defined the genre. But his talents were first employed by Asch, whose records acquired an instantly recognizable visual identity courtesy of Martin’s singular pen-and-ink style. Martin’s first work as Asch’s art director was, unsurprisingly, on a Mary Lou Williams album. But he knew how to catch the feel of calypso, too.