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The Night Mary Lou Williams Walked Out of Le Boeuf sur le Toit
A Beautiful and Wonderful 1976 Interview with Mary Lou Williams
That Night Would be the Turning Point of Her Life
It was June in 1954 and the Parisian night air was chilly enough for a wrap. However, Mary Lou Williams (MLW) ignored it. Walking briskly towards the Hotel La Boêtie. Having left Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof) despondent. Her depression - contained for a while with makeup, forced smiles, beautiful couture evening gowns, piled up hair, French perfumes, expensive jewelry, champagne, marijuana, furs, and of course raison d’être, her music - teemed with bitterness, anger, sadness, and a homesickness for America. That night would be the turning point of her life.
Probably the death of the jazz pianist Garland Wilson on May 31st, 1954, pushed her over the edge. She had befriended him in London and he joined her in Paris. But even before his passing a malaise had settled over Mary. Like the way winter and the rainy season hunkers down on a city.
She had been isolating herself at the hotel and strolled about Paris alone and distant. On one of those occasions she reported seeing the Virgin Mary in a church garden via correspondence to family members and friends. Was she having a mental breakdown?
Many months of soul searching lie ahead for Mary Lou. Where she would question the meaning, value, and purpose of her life and art. Gérard Pochonet, a drummer in her trio, went to the Hotel La Boêtie to check on her. In time they would become lovers.
Meanwhile the 44 year old alluring MLW dipped in smooth dark rich coffee. Who could easily pass for 35 - 38 years old lie in a hotel bed more than likely sobbing. Having spun the roulette wheel and bet on the 1952 European tour to reboot her career. She found herself riding the same darn merry-go-round.
Despite club bookings, TV and radio guest appearances here and there, and invites to the salons and mansions of the wealthy and powerful - she was still hard pressed financially and unable to finance a return trip to the States.
In fact, her debts were mounting in Paris and her musical creativity suffering too. Mary was always on the cutting-edge - she had attempted to musically experiment with using singing voices as instruments (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross would hone the style). And she was among the first jazz pianists to explore the usage of a bongo, bass, and drums on her jams.
In Paris, MLW began to feel increasingly overwhelmed and straight jacketed by the demands of European fans for boogie woogie tunes and by the stiff playing of the European musicians. As her soul clamored and burned for bebop.
According to John S. Wilson, a New York Times writer,…During a tour of Europe, she became distressed at what she saw as the ''greed, selfishness and envy'' that impinged on her music…1
Mary Lou’s Earlier Life
Mary Hit the Road At 12 Years Old
MLW was born out of wedlock on May 8th, 1910, and named Mary Elfrieda Scruggs. She had a succession of stepfathers and bonded with Fletcher Burley. Who bought her a piano. It is intimated in Mary Lou's biographies she had issues with her mother. On the bright side, Virginia Burley protected her daughter's gift of playing music by ear and would not allow her to take piano lessons.
Consequently, the renown jazz pianist with the strong left hand hit the road in her early teens. To escape a distant mother, the wretched poverty of Pittsburgh, and to assist her growing family financially.
She met her future husband, John Williams, a baritone and alto saxophone player. And five years her senior when he joined the Hits N Bits vaudeville troupe circa December of 1924.
In 1925 they started living together to reduce their touring expenses. However, John's mother prodded them relentlessly to get hitched. While they waited for a callback at her home in Memphis. Buckling under Mrs. Williams' crusade, she and John Williams were married on November 10th, 1926.
It was an open marriage. And only in that context was she a liberated woman. Dating whoever caught her fancy and from time to time dating interracially.
It is alleged Jack Teagarden, a jazz trombonist and singer, asked her to marry him. She also dated David Stone Martin the well-known jazz cover album illustrator, and Milt Orent an NBC arranger and bassist.
Nevertheless, Mary Lou still had to cope with the sexism of that day, Jim Crow, and colorism as a dark-skinned black female. It appears that men with musical inventiveness, or formidable knowledge in other fields besides jazz, or a take charge attitude fascinated her.
MLW Had a Passion for Horn Players
A Drill Sergeant in Heels
Unquestionably, Mary had a passion for horn players and fell hopelessly in love with Ben Webster, a tenor saxophonist, in 1932. Their romance may have cooled by 1937, but they remained close friends. Eventually she hooked up with Don Byas a tenor saxophonist.
By 1939, John Williams and Mary Lou were living separately. In 1940, Harold Baker, a jazz trumpeter, came into her life. Shortly thereafter, she filed for divorce from John Williams in January of 1941. The divorce was finalized in 1942. At which time she married Harold Baker. Their marriage endured until 1944 and then they separated. Curiously they never divorced.
Sadly, some of her romantic relationships were physically abusive. Domestic violence was America’s big little secret prevalent in all segments of society. Unfortunately, in those times women were encouraged and socialized to hang in there. As Mary was captivated by a musician’s artistry and ignored their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personalities.
On the other hand, if one of her musicians was playing substandard. She could be a drill sergeant in heels latching out harshly at them. Which led to an incident causing her nose to be broken.
Was There a Conspiracy to Block MLW's Career?
Although many male musicians mentored Mary Lou along the way. There were others envious of her musical know-how and accomplishments. And they felt she was getting too big for her breeches.
Whereas Mary was the first black female member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). And the first black female to have a jazz composition, Zodiac Suite, performed by a symphony orchestra.
In all likelihood when her name was mentioned for miscellaneous studio work, recording sessions, and music commissions, she was torpedoed by the haters. Also, Jim Crow blocked the consideration of MLW for bookings and projects that would yield greater exposure and significant financial enrichment.
The Spiritual Chemicalization Process Kicked In
Pochonet having fallen in love with the jazz pianist attempted to comfort her. She rebuffed him. However, he persisted in his efforts and she finally caved in. Probably because of the psychic visions and nightmares that were frightening her. Along with the urgent need for the laying on of hands, the desire to be physically held, and for his reassurances everything was going to be fine.
She possibly may have observed the apparition of the recently deceased jazz pianist Garland Wilson in the hotel room. In addition to the spirits of her pals: Dick Wilson a jazz tenor saxophonist, Jo Williams a banjo player, and Charlie Christian a swing and jazz guitarist. Likewise the specters of the children she aborted. As Mary was born with the gift of second sight as well and she was an intuitive.
Mary Lou's Turning Point
Mary Lou continued to work at the Le Boeuf sur le Toit. To cover her day-to-day living expenses and for funds to return to the States. She also sent out an SOS to the black American expatriate community for assistance. Sometime in July, MLW left Paris to reside with Gèrard at his grandmother’s house in the countryside. She mainly ate, slept, read Psalms continuously, and prayed while there.
In August, MLW managed to wiggle out of her contract with Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a French gay cabaret and bar. Having been offered the gig after Garland Wilson’s death based on their close friendship. In late December of 1954, she sailed to America leaving a heartbroken Gèrard Ponchonet.
Ultimately, Mary Lou would pierce the chatter of uncertainty and overpower the allusion of worthlessness. And she would emerge from the experience renewed. Decades later when asked about that period in her life during an interview. Mary Lou would reply it was the turning point.
Have You Ever Had the Blues?
1. Mary Lou Williams, A Jazz Great, Dies, Wilson, John A. The New York Times, May 30, 1981.
2. Morning Glory, A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, Dahl, Linda, Random House, Inc.,c1999.
3. Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, Kernodle, Tammy L., Northeastern University Press, Boston, c2004.
© 2017 Irma Cowthern