Vancouver Jazz

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Mary Lou Williams in Vancouver 1977

Posted on | January 2, 2013 | No Comments

by Nou Dadoun

A previously unavailable interview with Mary Lou Williams has just surfaced recently and it seems like a good idea to pull together the full story of Mary Lou Williams visit to Vancouver in 1977.

Our fearless leader Brian Nation ran the Vancouver Jazz Society for five years from 1975 to 1979, a full listing of the shows that the VJS presented is available here.  During that time, Vancouver audiences were treated to an incredible array of the creative music of the day from Sam Rivers to Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) to Don Cherry to the last performance of Warne Marsh paired with Lee Konitz.

However Mary Lou Williams was at least a generation or two removed from all of the other artists presented by the VJS during this period.  The connection oddly enough came through Cecil Taylor – Al Shimokura brought Cecil Taylor to Oil Can Harry’s as described in Brian’s blog posting about the late David S. Ware.  The extensive David S. Ware Sessionography maintained by Rick Lopez corrects the date for Cecil Taylor at Oil Can Harry’s to early April 1976.

While Cecil Taylor was in Vancouver, he gave Brian’s phone number as his Vancouver contact number and Brian “got some very interesting calls for him including from Alvin Ailey and Mary Lou Williams“.  Mary Lou Williams and Cecil Taylor were planning a duo concert which eventually came to fruition in April 1977.  Never one to miss an opportunity, Brian asked Williams if she would be willing to come to Vancouver to perform for the VJS.  (Brian often made his own opportunities – he told me once that when he wanted to bring Lee Konitz to Vancouver, he simply looked in the New Yorker magazine to find out which club Lee was playing in, called the club when he thought there would be a break, and asked to speak to Lee!)

Brian kept in touch with Mary over the next year, as evidenced by this letter from Mary dated August 1976:


Mary Lou Williams came to Vancouver and played the Vancouver Jazz Society venue at 4th and Trafalgar for 4 evenings Wednesday May 11 through Saturday May 14th 1977 with a children’s concert on the Saturday afternoon – see poster below. (In the interim, Cecil Taylor returned to play the VJS venue in March 1977 and Cecil Taylor and Mary Lou Williams did their infamous Embraced concert at Carnegie Hall in April 1977.)

According to Brian: “Larry Gales was booked to play with her in a duo setting but cancelled at the last minute so I hired Wyatt [Ruther]. Wyatt was a great player in his day but Mary Lou was not happy with his playing on this gig.

“The children’s concert was absolutely wonderful. Mary Lou played for an hour, talked to the kids, answered their questions, etc. I had hoped to do these kid’s concerts with more visiting players but this was the only one that worked out.”

The recording of the Saturday afternoon Children’s Concert has been posted on this site before, but for completeness it’s available here –

Play (right-click to download):
Mary Lou Williams Childrens Concert May 1977

While Mary Lou Williams was in Vancouver, she also appeared with Wyatt Ruther on CKVU-TV (see photograph at top) interviewed by Pia Shandel.  Unfortunately it appears that that performance and interview is lost.

However recently exhumed from the CBC archives by Senior Producer Michael Juk is a long forgotten interview that Mary Lou Williams gave to Bob Smith for the Vancouver CBC Jazz program Hot Air. (When I told Brian about it, he didn’t remember it.)  It’s a fascinating almost half-hour discussion in which Mary talks about her work with Duke Ellington, piano players, her four-stage history of jazz, women in jazz and many other subjects.

The recently rediscovered interview is available here – the interview refers to (but unfortunately omits) a number of recordings from the (at that time) recently released Mary Lou Williams recording on the Chiaroscuro label called Live at the Cookery.  She also refers to the aforementioned concert with Cecil Taylor hinting at what she told Brian explicitly: “She hated so-called avant garde or “free” jazz. I asked why she agreed to play with Cecil. “Cecil Taylor is a genius,” she said. But she hated the concert they did. Cecil dominated the performance – wasn’t listening to her at all. Surprising since he worshiped people like Mary Lou Williams, Duke Ellington, etc.

And the final word from Brian: “This was all one of the greatest experiences in my life. Mary Lou Williams was, of course, practically the history of jazz personified. I feel very blessed to have been able to hang out with her and hear, first hand, great stories of her early years with the Andy Kirk band, the Kansas City era, and on to the days when Monk, Bud Powell, et al, were hanging out at her New York apartment.”


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