Mary Lou Williams was an undeniable talent whose musical contributions span multiple eras in jazz.
After reading the detailed biography of Mary Lou Williams, Morning Glory by Linda Dahl, I felt emotionally drained. Her life was beautiful and awe-inspiring but also incredibly sad and frustrating. She had a generous and nurturing spirit- regularly helping and mentoring fellow musicians- but just as often was cheated and deceived by those in her inner circle. I have compiled a list, albeit incomplete, of many of these offenses.
The 1936 Decca recording of the Clouds of Joy, organized by Jack Kapp, utilized several of Mary Lou's arrangements. She was supposed to be paid $75 for each arrangement. Instead, they bought her a dress that she had expressed interest in for approximately $67. Total. For the the whole recording. Additionaly, none of her arrangements were copywritten from the session and as a result she spent years of time and effort trying to rectify the oversight and recieve her financial due for all of the resulting recordings- all unsuccessfully.
Until the Real Thing Comes Along was originally written by two young kids in Kansas City. They played the tune, originally known as "Slave Song" on ukeleles around the city and it became a very well-known tune in Kansas City. A young Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin were spending all of their time hanging around the recording studio with the Clouds of Joy. They wrote a new lyric to the tune and brought it to the band. Mary Lou wrote an arrangement for the tune and soon it was a huge hit. Mary Lou was paid $15 for the arrangement. Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin made a fortune.
Until the Real Thing Comes Along
Joe Glaser was not known for being a nice guy. Like many of the artists that he managed, Glaser had a complicated and stormy relationship with Mary Lou. He could be her best friend and advocate and also her worst enemy. John Hammond, Columbia A & R man told Mary at one point that Glaser was skimming off the top of her contract. In 1941, when Mary threatened to quit the Clouds of Joy unless Glaser properly compensated her for all of the music and arrangements she had written for the band in the past, Glaser warned her that he would end her career.
Moe Asch was a big proponent of Mary Lou's music for many years following 1944. Whenever she wanted to make a record, he'd set it up on his label. However, he never paid royalties and Mary Lou would often have to fight tooth and nail to be paid for any of her work. Later in her career, in spite of their history and her stature in the jazz community, he was one of the many labels that refused to record her.
Decca often utilized Mary Lou's talents for other artists, but they never paid her for her contributions. As she once said, "I did 20 things in one week for Decca. They were all hits and people stole like mad.. They were just snatching tunes like mad."
Mary wrote the tune Morning Glory based off words from a letter from Paul Webster. In the letter, he greeted her with, "What's the story Morning Glory?" Webster proceeded to add a bridge with Sonny Burke and called it Black Coffee. The pair got a copyright, but left Mary off the submission. She had to take them to court to obtain credit. They eventually settled with her for $300.
Paul Webster, Sonny Burke & Morning Glory
Harold Arlen's "Blues in the Night"'s main hook was taken directly from Mary Lou's tune, "Big Time Crip".
When Mary finally left the Clouds of Joy, Kirk was very angry. He even went as far as punishing her for leaving by withholding her "transfer card", a musician's union document she would need to be able to legally perform. He later went on record stating the reason that Mary left the band was because she was jealous of the attention that vocalist June Richmond was getting from the crowds. Mary has said that she actually left after finding several of her personal items stolen- most likely by a fellow bandmate- indicating that there was no brotherly love left in the band.
In the early 1940s when Mary put together a combo, she hired a young Art Blakey as the drummer. After losing an important gig the band parted ways. Blakey went back to Pittsburgh and brought several of Mary Lou's arrangements without her permission.
There was a short period of time when Mary Lou was recieving a weekly salary for arranging for Duke Ellington's orchestra. However, it's now known that she contributed at least forty seven arrangements and compositions to the band between the years of 1940 through the 1960s and was not paid for many of her arrangments. Later in life, she made it clear that she did not believe Ellington was unaware of the oversight. He was known to use his charm to distract musicians. She'd come to him asking for her pay and he would counter with a compliment of her dress.
When comparing Mary Lou's career trajectory to her contemporary, Hazel Scott, it's easy to specualte that colorism played a significant role in the different paths each pianist took. A musician could become a household name if featured in a major motion picture. However, darker skinned artists like Mary Lou were rarely ever featured. In spite of her stature in the music community, Mary Lou never received the career-altering opportunities that Scott did.
Mary Lou's December 30th, 1945 Town Hall performance of the Zodiac Suite was recorded. However, she was never given the recording from the performance. Timme Rosenkrantz, Jazz afficianado/leech stole the recording. Rosenkrantz was well known in the jazz community for inviting musicians to his apartment to party and play music. He had micorphones hidden in the apartment. He then sold the resulting recordings and never shared the profits with any of the musicians involved. During the AFM record ban, he sold the recordings overseas and kept the profits for himself.
Many musicians, intentionally or not, used Mary's compositions in their own without crediting her for her work. For example, her arrangement of "Lady Be Good" is used in "Rifftide" by Coleman Hawkins, in "Hackensack" by Thelonius Monk, and in "Fats Blows" by Fats Navarro. Monk also uses her second chorus of "Walkin' and Swingin'" for his "Rhythm-a-ning".
When Benny Goodman formed a bop-focused group, he hired Mary Lou to write arrangements. He paid her $10 per arrangement, far lower than her standard rate at the time and less than they had originally discussed, and promised that once the band took off he'd pay her more. The band never took off.
After Mary Lou's apartment was broken into and all of her reciepts (along with many other things) were stolen, the IRS agent insisted that "a negro would never pay as high as $500 for a gown". She was not allowed to write off her expensive gowns, putting her in an even bigger financial predicament.
After becoming the first black woman to join the institution in 1943, Mary Lou was foreced to cancel her membership in 1951 due to the fact that she didn't make enough money off of royalties to pay for the annual membership dues.
Mary Lou was very happy with Lindsay Steele's efforts on her behalf as a publicist. That is, until he fell in love with her and became obsessive and controlling, even kicking her door in in order to see her.
Harry Dawson brought Mary Lou to London under false pretense. He told her that she would be boldly breaking the ban on American artists performing in the city, when in reality, pianists merely fell though a loophole in the ban. They were considered "variety" artists. The term was equivalent to vaudeville artists in the States and Mary Lou found it incredibly insulting. Additionall, the accomodations were subpar- often without heat- and the pay was far lower than she had been promised.
Nicole Barclay was once a friend of Mary Lou's but went on to produce an album for Mary Lou that would be yet another in the long list of albums she was never properly financially compensated for.
Record Labels & Frank Sinatra
Later in Mary Lou's career, despite her many contributions to the music world, and her highly regarded reputation, she struggled to find a label that would record her work. At one point, she wrote to Frank Sinatra, requesting that he record her for his new label, Reprise. He never even responded to the letter.
Jazz critic Leonard Feather produced the first Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City. He invited Mary Lou to be a part of the festival. At a press juncket prior to the event, Mary Lou was asked about her experience as a woman in jazz. Her response was not what the creator of the event hoped to hear and Feather went on to describe her attidude as "all-but anti-feminist", creating a public backlash.
In 1970, Mary Lou began seeing a chiropracture for her chronic back pain. After examining her, the chiropracture told her friend- not Mary Lou- that the pain was not related to her back. It was something far more serious. It wasn't until 1979 that she was finally diagnosed with bladder cancer. The cancer would prove to be terminal.