Mary Lou’s Salon

“The all-time greatest woman jazz musician.” That typically was the kind of language used in describing Mary Lou Williams.  Mary Lou was, beyond dispute, a fabulous pianist, as well as a noted arranger, and composer.

She also had another role of distinction: that of a sort of “mother spirit” for musicians. Her spacious Harlem apartment was a “salon” where, especially in the 1940’s, many prominent jazz people hung out, especially—though not exclusively—those musicians whose style was at the cutting edge.

I was a friend of Mary Lou’s and particularly remember when, in 1947 she had me show up at her place for an evening gathering.  The turnout was small, but choice. Among the group that appeared were three disparate geniuses who were, or became, members of Down Beat’s Hall of Fame: Dizzy Gillespie, the trumpeter and be-bop icon; Jack Teagarden, the premier trombonist of the era; and May Lou, herself.  To top it off, there were two of the most prominent boppers: pianist-arranger Tadd Dameron and pianist Hank Jones.

It was a serious social gathering.  No jamming.  Just serious talk, mostly about music...with some attention to recordings played on Mary Lou’s small phonograph, and occasional moments at a piano by one or another of the guests, to illustrate a point. As for the usually flamboyant Dizzy, he had no horn but smoked a pipe, looking on as if he were an elder statesman.  The hostess, for her part, was all dressed up, with a corsage pinned to her dress.

Finding Jack Teagarden in that group was surprising. Here, among the boppers, was the laid-back Texan trombonist and singer who was a celebrated touring partner of Louis Armstrong and a frequent member of old-time combos. But everyone loved the guy, for his personality and musicianship.

A memorable night!