08 MAY, 2015
By: Maria Popova
How an extraordinary woman transformed bullying into beautiful music and came to lift the spirits of millions.
The history of jazz is strewn with Y chromosomes and credit-hogging egos, which makes pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910–May 28, 1981) all the more dazzling an outlier — a generous genius who, like Mozart, began playing the piano at the age of four. At a time when women sang and danced but rarely played an instrument, Williams became a virtuoso pianist who went on to write and arrange for legends like Duke Ellington and mentored a generation of emerging icons, including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. Ellington himself, who believed she was “like soul on soul,” aptly captured her spirit and legacy in noting that “her music retains a standard of quality that is timeless.”
In The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (public library), writers Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald tell Williams’s uplifting story of passion, perseverance, and prolific contribution to creative culture. What emerges is not only a wonderful addition to the loveliest picture-books celebrating creative luminaries, but also a bold antidote to the striking statistics that only 31 percent of children’s books feature female protagonists and a mere 0.3 percent include characters of color.
The story, illustrated by the inimitable Giselle Potter — the talent behind Gertrude Stein’s posthumous alphabet book, Toni Morrison’s dark allegory for freedom, and an original love letter to dreams — begins with a long train ride little Mary took with her mother and sister from their hometown of Atlanta to Pittsburg, known as “The Smoky City” for its fuming steel mills, where they were to live with her aunt and uncle.
The night she left Georgia, Mary couldn’t see anything but lights out the train window … but she could hear! She listened to the train and clapped out its sound on her knees.
She sang the sound of its whistle.
“Chug-ga, chug-ga, chug-ga … Toot! Toot!”
The train went faster, leaving home behind:
“Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack! Clackety-clack!”
Mary clapped and sang softly, so that Mama and her sister, Mamie, could sleep.
By the time they arrived at the big station in Pittsburgh the next morning, Mary had sung herself to sleep, too.
Music was Mary’s most exuberant love — a love seeded by her mother, who was an organ player at their church back in Georgia, attesting once again to the power of attentive, creatively supporting parenting in cultivating artistic genius.
When Mary was three, Mama played a tune, holding Mary on her lap.
As the last notes sounded through the room, Mary reached out and played them back to her mother. Mama stood up and Mary went tumbling. Mama cried to her neighbors, “Come hear this! Come hear my baby girl play!”
But they had to sell the organ when they moved, so Mary stopped playing. To make matters direr, their new home was far from welcoming — hostile to newcomers, the neighbors threw bricks through their windows and tirelessly taunted the family with unwholesome epithets. The local children called Mary cruel names, pulled her hair, and ridiculed her clothing.
And yet even at this young age, Mary possessed that singular skill of great artists — the ability to turn trauma into raw material for art — and transmuted the trying experience into music:
Ugly names and cruel words… Mary called them “bad sounds” and she taught herself to play them out. Even without a keyboard, she could do it. Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds and sang out her sadness. She crooned and whispered and shouted out until her spirit was lifted free.
One day, when little Mary was picking dandelions in the street, a kindly lady from the local church passed by and invited her over for ice cream. As soon as the little girl entered the house, a treat far more delectable transfixed her — a big old piano, sitting in the corner under a lace cover. Intrigued by the little girl’s interest, the lady invited Mary to play her a tune.
Mary sat down and lifted the cover. She drew a shaky breath and her fingers found the keys. They hadn’t forgotten a thing. Soon she was riding those keys, playing a tune that rumbled along like a freight train.
“Lord have mercy!” said Lucille. The teacup jumped in her hand. She went to the stairs and called up.
“Cephus! Come down here and hear this child play.” But Cephus was already halfway down the stairs.
Soon, the neighbors and the whole town were bewitched by Mary’s talent and she became affectionately known as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” People even started paying her to play for them — something that calls to mind another pioneering woman of the era, the great children’s book artist and author Wanda Gág, who was so talented as a child that she sold her drawings to feed the family.
The remainder of the wholly wonderful The Little Piano Girl goes on to tell the story of how Williams came to lift other spirits free with her music the way she had once lifted her own, electrifying people the world over and becoming one of the most influential musicians humanity has ever known.
Complement it with more magnificent picture-book biographies celebrating great artists, writers, and scientists, including those of Frida Kahlo, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Neruda.
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