Jazz Film Review: The Lady Who Swings the Band

Oct 25, 2017

Pianist, composer and arranger Mary Lou Williams was one of the most talented and versatile musicians in jazz, but throughout her life she had to fight for recognition of her accomplishments.  Her story is well told in the film Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band.

Director Carol Bash spent 11 years on her Mary Lou Williams project, and she makes excellent use of archival photos, recordings and interviews.  Actress Alfre Woodard provides the voice of Mary Lou Williams, reading from her letters and memoirs. 

The result is a film that serves as an introduction to this jazz genius as well as connecting to the on-going discussion of the struggles faced by women in the arts. 

Jazz, supposedly the most democratic of art forms, remains male-dominated.  There have been major improvements, but the overwhelming response to pianist Robert Glasper's recent public remarks about women and jazz makes it plain that attitudes toward women in music haven't really changed much since Mary Lou Williams was starting her career.

Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Mary Lou Williams and Jack Teagarden in Mary Lou William's apartment, NYC, August 1947
Credit William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress

Mary Lou Williams played the demanding styles of stride and boogie-woogie piano in the 1920s.  In the 1930s her compositions and arrangements made the bands of the Swing Era swing.  She incubated the bebop revolution of the 1940s, and incorporated blues and funk in her music during the 1960s and 1970s.  When Mary Lou turned to Catholicism later in her life, she wrote the stunning Mary Lou's Mass.  She was a gifted teacher and a generous mentor.

This is an important film on several levels.  Mary Lou Williams:  The Lady Who Swings the Band tells Mary Lou's story and provides some insight as to why she is rarely mentioned in the lists of the greatest jazz artists.  It also includes commentary from historians and biographers who are black women, still a rarity in most jazz documentaries.  

Join me for the showing of Mary Lou Williams:  The Lady Who Swings the Band at Northwest Film Forum at 4pm on Sunday October 29.  It's part of the Earshot Jazz Festival film series.  

Robin Lloyd hosts Mid Day Jazz and Jazz Caliente on KNKX-FM.  She is a member of the Jazz Education Network, and currently serves on the board of the Jazz Journalists Association.