I keep learning more about pianist Mary Lou Williams, and there’s so much worth learning. It’s astounding that Williams is not better and more widely known, though jazz insiders recognize her brilliance and impact.
Robin Kelley’s biography of Thelonious Monk helped illustrate what an important mentor Williams was for Monk and for so many important jazz pianists. When I interviewed pianist Geri Allen for a Wall Street Journal piece last year, Allen —who played Williams in Robert Altman’s 1996 film “Kansas City” and, more convincingly, played Williams’s rarely performed “Zodiac Suite” on a 2006 recording—explained to me what an important force Williams was on generations to follow.
Here’s more insight, straight from Williams, who died in 1981. It comes via a 1977 interview with Williams, conducted by Bob Smith, in Vancouver, for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Hot Air.” (You need to scroll down to access the interview, which is 27 minutes long.)
At the start, Williams talks about having just played the Keystone Korner, the wonderful San Francisco club Todd Barkan owned from 1972 to 1983, and where he presented musicians including Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Grover Washington, Jr. and Bill Evans, often in inventive double-bills. Williams used to call the club “the Birdland of the ’70s.” (That chapter of history is recalled in this book.)
Barkan, who until recently programmed Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s club in Manhattan, now rekindles the spirit and even some of the personnel of his former San Francisco landmark in New York with “Todd Barkan Presents Keystone Korner Nights at The Iridium.” The series, which Barkan says will include “100 nights of original programming” on Wednesday and Sunday nights at the Manhattan club, launches tonight, with a tribute to guitarist Wes Montgomery. The band includes bassist Ray Drummond, who performed at the original Keystone Korner, as well as drummer Jimmy Cobb, pianist Harold Mabern, trumpeter Lew Soloff, saxophonist Eric Alexander, and guitarist Peter Bernstein.
Barkan, who is the knowing and loving kind of impresario, promises some special guests tonight. His new series offers a welcome look back at a significant legacy and promises to be an invigorating presence on New York’s current scene.
Images: Mary Lou Williams/William P. Gottlieb Collection (Library of Congress); Keystone Korner/Todd Copi/courtesy of Todd Barkan