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Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band is part of Black Lives, Black Voices, a micro-festival of current films by Black filmmakers exploring issues of racial justice and Black identity. Other films in the series include Our Right to Gaze, The Inheritance, and Test Pattern. The festival is funded by a grant from the Bloomington Urban Enterprise Association.
Mary Lou Williams was ahead of her time, a genius. Her musical career began in the 1920s; in an era when jazz was the nation’s popular music, she was one of its greatest innovators. As both a pianist and composer, she was a wellspring of daring and creativity who helped shape the sound of 20th century America. And like the dynamic, turbulent nation in which she lived, Williams seemed to re-define herself with every passing decade. From child prodigy to “Boogie-Woogie Queen” to groundbreaking composer to mentoring some of the greatest musicians of all time, Mary Lou Williams never ceased to astound those who heard her play.
In the 1950s, jazz icons like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell regularly visited Mary Lou Williams at her Harlem apartment to gain knowledge and inspiration. And in the 1970s, after her conversion, Mary Lou Williams took jazz in whole new direction—inside the Catholic Church.
But away from the piano, Williams was a woman in a “man’s world,” a black person in a “whites only” society, an ambitious artist who dared to be different and struggled against the imperatives of being a “star.” Above all, she did not fit the (still) prevailing notions of where genius comes from or what it looks like. Time and again, she pushed back against a world that said, “You can’t” and said, “I can.”
Prior to her career as an independent filmmaker, Carol Bash worked in broadcast television at CBS News and the BBC. Currently, she is developing Clean Justice, a feature documentary on the environmental justice movement; Coming To A School Near You, a short documentary on the impact of Betsy DeVos’ educational policies on the Detroit public school system; and Blueprint For My People, an experimental film exploring the history of African Americans through poetry and rare archival images.
Louis Armstrong, for instance, more or less ended his musical development while still in his 20s, and held to the same style from the time of his heroic recordings made between 1925 and 1930 through to the end of his life, in 1971. Duke Ellington, a peerless composer as well as a great pianist, reached a stylistic apogee in the early 1940s. But Mary Lou Williams, in continuing to outdo herself, also outdid these heroes of her time in several crucial respects: she played better in her 60s than she ever did, reaching an artistic fulfillment in the 1970s. In this regard, she’s unique in the history of jazz. In the music that she performed in the last decade of her life, in solos, duets, and trios, her originality and her passion, as well as the depth of her experience, come through in an awe-inspiring, hands-on rush of pent-up and long-gestating creative energy. –The New Yorker