Dave Douglas: Soul on Soul

One of my favorite finds during the month I’ve been studying Mary Lou Williams has been this album, Soul on Soul: A Celebration of Mary Lou Williams.


Dave Douglas is another one of my favorite artists.  I really love the sound collages he creates with his compositions.  The sum is so much greater than it’s parts.  His music, to me, is so much more than “good jazz”.  His music leaves me with a feeling, much more than a tune I can hum.

He says in the liner notes, “Mary Lou’s being so consistently modern was what first attracted me to her music.  There were so many obstacles in her path, yet here was a person who was continually renovating and doing new things.  To me this seems absolutely courageous.”

In relation to the Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country Staircase Blog, it’s fitting that Douglas, a trumpet player, created this tribute album.  The next artist on the staircase is Bix Beiderbecke, who is one of history’s most innovative jazz trumpet players.

Not only at the Old Town School of Folk Music, but in real life, too.

One of the many great things about the Old Town School is that the classes are so diverse.  Every day of the week you can take classes in guitar styles of the Rolling Stones, taiko drumming from Japan, ancient hula, cajun fiddle, breakdancing, or join the mandolin orchestra.

So many times I have experiences with cultures coming together and I think, “Well, that can only happen at the Old Town School.”

I used to think of that a lot as I led the Thursday Night Jam in the lobby of the East Building, right underneath the staircase. As you can see in this picture, the Mary Lou Williams portrait is on the left and a screen printed Woody Guthrie poster is on the right.  Two of my biggest musical influences sharing the space at the Old Town School.

Lobby and Jam Space at the Old Town School of Folk Music's East Building

Lobby and Jam Space at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s East Building.  Mary Lou is on the left.  Woody is on the right.

And again, I would think to myself, “Only at the Old Town School are these two musicians, one a hero of the jazz age, and the other a hero of the dust bowl refugees, able to be celebrated in the same room.”

Then, my good friend, Chris Walz, Program Manager: Bluegrass, Old Time & Americana at the Old Town School of Folk Music, told me about this picture.

Mary Lou Williams second from the left in the back row, and Woody is on the right with his guitar.

This is taken from the FDR Bandwagon, a group of musicians and dancers in support Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.  The group, which was organized by Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records, never really took off.  But, there they are.  Mary Lou Williams on the left and Woody Guthrie in the right with the guitar.

Not only at the Old Town School of Folk Music, but in real life, too.

Mess-a-Stomp – Arranging for Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy

A quote from Mary Lou Williams from the book Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya:  The Story of Jazz as Told by he Men Who Made It, by Nat Shaprio and Nat Hentoff

She sat cross-legged at the piano, a cigarette in her mouth, writing music with her right hand while accompanying the show with her left!  Impressed, I told myself, “Mary, you’ll do that one day.” (And I did, traveling with Andy Kirk’s band in the ‘thirties on one-nighters.)


The lady turned out to be Lovie Austin, who was working with the pit band and making orchestrations.  It so happened that she was behind time, and hurriedly arranging a number for one of the acts further down the bill.

In the music that I play, which is mostly folk or rock music, the performer is usually the arranger.

As I’ve been reading and listening to more Mary Lou Williams, and to more jazz in general, it’s been a pleasure to consider the arrangement of a piece, rather than just the tune.

Here’s a recording of the first song that Mary arranged for Andy Kirk and the Clouds of Joy.  It’s called Mess-a-Stomp.

Tammy L Kernwood, author of Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, writes of the recording,

Mary enters with an unaccompanied piano solo that is a synthesis of the boogie-woogie and stride piano styles.  Mary’s mastery of the stride style is prominent and she often punctuates the syncopated melodies played by the right hand with the heavy left-hand motives.  This interaction between a strong swinging left hand and a melodically syncopated right hand is characteristic of Mary’s style.

Willow Weep for Me

Art Tatum was the first jazz piano player that really knocked me out.  It was while looking for recordings of his that I first stumbled onto Mary Lou Williams.

In the book Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz as told by the Men Who Made It (by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Mary Lou Williams says,

“Whenever I wasn’t listening to Tatum, I was playing – Art inspired me so much.”

“Who is the real Mary Lou Williams?”

One reason that I wanted to put this blog together, was to return to a state of mind that I had when I was in my earlier stages of development as a musician and as a music fan.Soul on Soul

I used to spend a lot more time at the library, digging into biographies and histories, rather than getting a quick overview at Allmusic.com or wikipedia.org.

I’ve spent the month reading this biography, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, by Tammy L. Kernodle.  It’s been inspiring to read about all the times she had to, or chose to, reinvent herself as a musician and as a person in a larger community.

The introduction of the book starts off with a great series of questions.

“Who was the real Mary Lou Williams?  Was she the elegant woman who graced the pages of magazines and newspapers for over sixty years?  Was she the demanding artist who often drove managers crazy and made unreasonable requests?  Was she the embodiment of the jazzwomans’ desire to move from a place of marginality to a place of equality?  Or was she simply the young girl who had escaped the poverity and monotony of domestic life and lived out a modern-day fairy tale?”

Mary Lou Williams – Meeting Jelly Roll Morton

From the book “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men who Made It.” by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff

“At a convenient break, the introduced me and told Jelly they would like for him to hear me.  Indicating that I should park my hips on the stool, Jelly gave over the piano and I got started on my favorite  Morton piece, The Pearls.  Almost immediately I was stopped and reprimanded, told the right way to phrase it.  I played it the way Jelly told me, and when I had it to his satisfaction, I slipped in one of my own tunes.  This made no difference.  I was soon stopped and told: “Now that passage should be phrased like this.”

Mary Lou Williams – Featured Artist for January 2013

It’s been exciting digging deeper into the music of Mary Lou Williams.  While I don’t play jazz, I do love to listen to it very much and Mary Lou Williams has been a favorite since I was in college in the late 90s.

As and undergrad, looking for music by Art Tatum, I stumbled onto a recording of her song, Nicole, on a compilation called Smithsonian Collection – Jazz Piano.  It was one of those songs that I can still listen to over and over and over again.

The recording presented here, from the album Black Christ Of The Andes, is not the same as the one that caught my ears all those years ago, and I don’t find it quite as compelling.  But, it is still very enjoyable.