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A Woman's Place: The Importance Of Mary Lou Williams' Harlem Apartment

Mary Lou Williams in 1942. In the 1930s and '40s, her apartment on 63 Hamilton Terrace formed an important space in advancing the evolution of jazz and the survival of musicians.
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Mary Lou Williams in 1942. In the 1930s and '40s, her apartment on 63 Hamilton Terrace formed an important space in advancing the evolution of jazz and the survival of musicians.

You won't find Mary Lou Williams' apartment on the historical register or visit it during one of the many tours that have economically revitalized Harlem. From the outside, 63 Hamilton Terrace looked like many of the brownstones that architecturally defined Harlem's landscape. Inside, however, a generation of young artists met, woodshedded new music and etched out a progressive, radical agenda that would shift the music world off its axis and challenge listeners to rethink their sonic understandings of jazz.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Harlem was full of places that nightly served a menu of music, social freedom, kinetic and sexual energy. There was the Savoy Ballroom on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, which functioned as the birthplace of modern social dance culture and the site of the historic "battle of the bands." The Apollo Theater on West 125th Street, where amateur performers tested their talents in front of unforgiving audiences. Minton's Playhouse, Monroe's Uptown House, Small's Paradise and the other small nightclubs that jazz musicians rushed to after their regular paying gigs. While all of these spaces shaped important aspects of jazz's history, they also perpetuated the notion that paradigm-shifting experimentation was male-centered, cultivated in isolation or only occurred in these public spaces. Mary Lou Williams' apartment on 63 Hamilton Terrace was as important as any of these spaces in advancing the evolution of jazz and the survival of musicians.

Most of us have heard the cliché, "a woman's place is in the home." This axiom gained popularity in the post-war years in counter-response to the overwhelming economic and social freedom women experienced during the World War II and the emergence of the women's movement in the late 1960s. The phrase originated with the Greek playwright Aeschylus in 467 B.C. In the play "Seven Against Thebes" Aeschylus wrote, "Let the woman stay at home and hold their peace." In 1732, Thomas Fuller declared, in Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs, "a woman is to be from her house three times: when she is christened, married, and buried." The spread of this belief, especially within the framework of respectability politics, led to the home or domestic sphere being equated with femininity. For many women, especially middle-and-upper class white women, the home became the space of deferred dreams and muted voices. But for black women, the home and domestic sphere represented so much more.

For poor and working-class women, the home provided alternatives to agriculture work and prostitution. Home laundries and domestic work provided these women with consistent work and wages, even if they at times exposed women to economic and sexual exploitation. Despite the limitations, this type of work did provide many black women with the means to acquire their own homes. Home ownership represented physical and social stability in the black community. In addition to providing shelter from the racialized violence inflicted upon black families, the home was one of the primary spaces outside of the Black Church, and black social clubs and Greek-letter organizations, where black women could embody the conventional notions of femininity and respectability. Crucially, the homes of black women also nested a black cultural revolution that extended to the literary, visual and performance arts.

The development of black women's intellectual acuity first occurred in the home. It was in living rooms and at kitchen tables that black women transferred the knowledge that was key to their survival and negotiation of white and male-centered public spaces. Knowledge transference also extended to the work of cultivating and preserving different forms of cultural expression. In time, the poetry, art, dance and music they created and nurtured migrated beyond the walls of these homes, entered mainstream America's consciousness and radically redefined expressive culture.

In the years immediately following World War I, a revolution rooted in the ideology of racial vindication and uplift was gestated in the homes of black women like A'Lelia Walker, the daughter of the first self-made black millionaire Madame C. J. Walker. Her brownstones on West 136th Street, near Lenox Avenue, became home to the "Dark Tower," a salon that hosted the young writers, artists, musicians, civil rights leaders and intellectuals who embodied what we know as the Harlem Renaissance. Writers Zora Neale Hurston, Bruce Nugent and Langston Hughes, along with artist Aaron Douglas, blues woman Alberta Hunter and composer/music critic Nora Holt, frequently participated in the poetry readings, musical performances and art exhibits that marked the Dark Tower's short history. While working the black vaudeville circuit called the TOBA, a teenaged Mary Lou Williams visited Harlem. While I have founded no evidence that Williams attended any of A'Lelia Walker's soirées, I have no doubt she would have heard about these grand affairs.

Walker's cultivation of the black cultural arts through a mirroring of 19th century salon culture became one of the central ways in which black women reflected and promoted the New Negro aesthetic. In Chicago, music educator and organist Estelle C. Bonds hosted an array of writers, artists, performers and composers in her home on Wabash Avenue. Years later her only child, composer Margaret Bonds, recounted how her childhood home had, at one point, hosted every living black composer during the 1920s and 1930s. Helen Walker-Hill illustrates in the book From Spirituals to Symphonies: African-American Women Composers and their Musichow Estelle Bonds' home, like that of A'Lelia Walker, represented many different things to the black migrant community of Chicago. It was one-part hostel, one-part soup kitchen and one-part music school. What was most central to its legacy is how it hosted activity that revolutionized the Depression-era American concert hall. When composer Florence Price could not afford to hire a copyist to produce orchestral parts of her first symphonic work, Bonds called every literate musician she knew on the South Side, and they copied the parts at her kitchen table. This work would go on to win the Wanamaker Prize in 1932 and become the first symphony by a black woman to be performed by a major American orchestra. When black concert artists and composers wanted to create an infrastructure that would finance the training of new artists, and promote the music of their peers, they met at Bonds' house and created the Chicago Music Association. A little more than two decades later, Mary Lou Williams embodied the same type of energy with her mentorship of the generation of musicians that would create bebop.

In 1943, after spending almost a decade performing and touring with Andy Kirk's swing band Clouds of Joy, Mary Lou Williams settled in Harlem. The previous two years had marked a period of instability for the pianist-arranger, as the camaraderie with the male musicians that defined her early years with the Kirk band had given way to money issues, personality clashes and sexism. In 1942, during a gig in Washington, D.C., an unhappy and physically-drained Williams left Kirk's band and returned momentarily to her hometown of Pittsburgh. After an unsuccessful attempt to relaunch her career with a combo that included a young Art Blakey, Williams married trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker, and in early 1943 she joined Baker as he toured with Duke Ellington's band. It was during this period that Williams first wrote for the Ellington band. Her re-working of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies,"became a feature for the trumpet section that she called "Trumpets, No End." Several years would pass before the band recorded the song, largely because of the labor strike the American Federation of Musicians enacted against the recording industry between 1942 and 1944. The marriage was disastrous: Baker became physically abusive not long after the two exchanged vows. Despite this, Williams tried to salvage the relationship. These efforts led to her moving into the small apartment at 63 Hamilton Terrace. It is not clear if Baker ever visited the Harlem flat, but for almost three decades the apartment would serve as her home.

In addition to marking a new phase in her personal life, the move to Hamilton Terrace also marked a new chapter in her professional career. Mary Lou Williams settled into the role of solo jazz pianist in a music scene that was dramatically changing. New York in 1943 was very different place from the Harlem she experienced first in the 1920s while touring with TOBA and later in the mid-1930s when the Kirk band played the Savoy Ballroom. Harlem was no longer the center of the city's nightlife. The fetishizing of black culture that led many to trek up to Harlem was in decline. Instead, jazz patrons and tourists now frequented the nightclubs that lined 52nd Street. However, the music continued to play in Harlem and dancers continued the sojourn to the Savoy Ballroom. Harlem was also changing socially and politically. As Farah Jasmine Griffin discusses in Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II, the neighborhood was quickly becoming a provincial outpost of a larger progressive political movement that aligned itself with the pro-black American Double-V campaign of the war years. This political energy propelled the fight for equality in the decade that followed World War II and infected not only Harlem's citizenry, but also its jazz community. The alignment of jazz with the left-wing Popular Front shifted the music from simply being popular culture to resistance culture. Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and the young musicians who would come to call themselves beboppers would embodied this consciousness of protest and resistance by rejecting jazz conventions.

As early as 1941, this small group of young musicians began deconstructing the musical foundations of jazz during the jam sessions held at Monroe's Uptown House and Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. As Americans sought a diversion from the Great Depression and eventually World War II, the popularity of jazz and its dance culture exploded. Beboppers believed that the consumerist culture that the big band idiom generated throughout the 1930s and 1940s had led to creative and musical dilution of jazz. They had watched as the black bandleaders and bands that had defined the earliest aspects of that culture had been pushed into the margins of the mainstream scene as white bands, who garnered more dollars and support, were coded as emblems of democracy, nationalism and youthful exuberance. During their late-night jam sessions, these musicians devised a response to the "whitening" of jazz culture. They shifted the consciousness of the jazz musician by rejecting the homogeneity promoted through Swing. The emphasis of the collective over the individual was central to the big band idiom. Beboppers disrupted this narrative through their dress, which shifted away from matching suits, to an eclectic style that influenced '50s hipster culture (e.g. berets, tortoiseshell glasses, goatees, etc.) This break with swing also extended to the emphasis they placed on self-actualization through the cultivation of the individual sound identity. During jam sessions, musicians developed the riffs, nuances and repertory that distinguished their individual quest for artistry from the previous generation of jazz musicians. Musically and ideologically, they professed to be modernists, which was reflected in their use of advanced and complex harmonic and structural devices. They studied, borrowed from and emulated the progressive approaches that framed early 20th century concert music. They also shunned the simplicity of the big band arrangement, deciding instead to deconstruct jazz conventions by decentralizing the melody and placing the focus on intricate and harmonically complex improvisations. Their political consciousness also aligned with this sonic radicalness. This generation embodied the radical blackness of the New Negro aesthetic without the elitist sensibilities that accompanied it. For most, even within the jazz community, the persona, attitude and musical sounds purveyed by this generation of musician was disconcerting, radical and transgressive. But Williams heard and saw something different.

Mary Lou Williams discovered this musical circle soon after moving to Harlem. Nightly, after performing at the influential nightclub Café Society, she would trek uptown to Minton's Playhouse on West 118th Street. There she met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, trombonist J.J. Johnson and others. She became reacquainted with pianist Thelonious Monk, whom she had met in Kansas City in 1934 while he was working with a female evangelist. Despite the fact that she was nearly a decade older than most of them, Mary Lou Williams and these musicians had much in common. They all had risen through the ranks of local or territorial bands, and by 1942 had reached the level of the national or acclaimed dance bands. They had endured the brutal tours through Jim Crow America that sustained black bands during the 1930s. In Harlem, they fell into the company of others who shared similar musical interests and ambitions in the after-hours clubs and jam sessions. What strongly linked Williams and these musicians was their spirit of experimentation. The harmonies and structural changes the boppers experimented with were nothing new for the pianist. During her years in Kansas City, Williams played what she called "zombie music." This style, according to her, consisted of "mainly of 'outré' chords, new 'out' harmonies based on 'off' sounds." Williams and Kirk argued consistently about use of complex harmonies in her arrangements. Despite remaining with the Kirk band for over a decade, Williams felt creatively limited by his desire for commercial stardom

As her musical and personal bond with this young cadre of musicians grew, Williams' apartment became another space for personal and musical engagement, the setting for a modern-day "salon" that paralleled 19th-century French musical circles. Each night Williams hosted the musicians as they sat around discussing music, listening to recordings and writing new tunes. "It was like the '30s,"she remarked years later. "Musicians helped each other and didn't just think of themselves. Monk, Tadd Dameron, Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell, Aaron Bridgers, Billy Strayhorn, plus various disc jockeys and newspapermen, would be in and out of my place at all hours and we'd really ball."

The apartment was modest in décor, consisting of two twin beds, seating for a few people, file cabinets that housed correspondence and musical scores, a record player and a Baldwin upright piano. The modesty of this interior, however, belied the creative energy that pervaded this space. Williams had a white rug on the living room floor that the group would sit on. Each would take turns playing because, as Williams recounted later, "most of them needed inspiration." Some wrote new tunes during these moments. Others brought compositions they had worked on beforehand, seeking her opinion and help in developing these ideas further. More than any of the other musicians that gathered at 63 Hamilton Terrace, Thelonious Monk was particularly drawn to Williams. He valued her opinion greatly and often camped out at her house. In a series of articles chronicling her life and musical experiences that ran in the 1950s in the jazz periodical Melody Maker, Williams wrote "Monk would write a tune and he'd come here and play it for two or three months. I'd say, 'Why do you keep playing the same thing over and over?' He'd say, 'I'm trying to see if it's a hit. It'll stay with you if it's a hit." She also grew close to pianist Bud Powell and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Her friendship with Powell extended to her being hired by club owners to ensure he fulfilled his contractual obligations. Williams and Gillespie would share a life-long friendship that was central to her return to the jazz scene following a self-imposed three-year hiatus in the mid-1950s.

The impact of the intellectual activity that took place at Williams' apartment is measured not only in the musical performances of this generation of musicians, but also Williams' own work during this period. During the mid-to-late 1940s Williams entered a period of considerable experimentation that stretched beyond the performative aspects of jazz and the conventional spaces it was heard. She entered an exclusive recording agreement with Asch Records, which produced some important recordings that mark the evolution of jazz piano and aligned the progression of her sonic identity with the modern jazz aesthetic. Her composition "In the Land of Oo0-Bla-Dee," written for and recorded by Dizzy Gillespie, reflected how Williams merged the bebop aesthetic and the big band idiom. Zodiac Suite, a series of compositions inspired by jazz musicians born under particular zodiac signs, represented how Williams was influenced by 19th-century Romanticism. This work stretched beyond the harmonic nuances of jazz to include the structural devices of the Romantic era symphonic poem. Williams' continuous reworking of the composition in various performance configurations—from solo piano to small combo to setting for chamber orchestra—reflected her vision of jazz extending beyond conventional spaces and sounds.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Williams' apartment once again was central to the nurturing of a generation of musicians as Williams attempted to prevent the proliferation of drugs and the subsequent decimation of the jazz community. Following her own spiritual and physical breakdown in Paris in 1954, she returned to America and entered a period of spiritual transformation and converted to Catholicism. After experiencing the death of Charlie Parker and witnessing the deterioration of Bud Powell, Williams decided to intervene. In addition to taking musicians to church, she turned her one-bedroom apartment into a one-woman rehabilitation center. 63 Hamilton Terrace became a halfway house where Williams detoxified, fed, clothed and found work for addicted musicians. The worst cases she housed in a room down the hall that she rented cheaply from a neighbor. Musicians usually stayed a couple of weeks and, when possible, left clean, sober and with employment. Sometimes they returned in worse shape than before, but many got back on their feet, resuming their lives and careers. She funded her efforts through royalty checks and donations from other musicians like Dizzy and Lorraine Gillespie. The home that provided an intellectual and artistic sanctuary for a generation of musicians during the 1940s became a space of protection and healing for those battling their addictions and fleeing criminal prosecution. Williams continued this work for a number of years and had hopes to build a facility that would be funded through her Bel Canto Foundation. Unfortunately, this never materialized, but Williams continued her work, financing her efforts for years through the operation of a thrift store in Harlem.

While the cultural and social history that surround the homes of A'Lelia Walker and Estelle C. Bonds during the height of the Negro Renaissance have yet to be fully explored, the cultural importance of Mary Lou's apartment became part of jazz musicians' lore. It is important to note that 63 Hamilton Terrace was not the only home to nurture experimental waves of jazz performance and composition during the last half of the 20th century. In the years immediately following the death of her husband John in 1967, Alice Coltrane also opened her home to a generation of musicians who challenged the musical and social contexts of jazz. In this case, Coltrane used the recording studio John built in their Dix Hills, Long Island home to collaborate with the young musicians who had worked closely with him in progressing avant-garde jazz. During the late 1960s and early 1970s Alice recorded a series of albums in that studio that positioned her as one of the progressive voices of the second wave of avant-garde jazz and the genre of liturgical jazz. As with Williams, the progression of Coltrane's sonic identity occurred after a major lifestyle change that correlated with an emerging wave of musical experimentation tied to radical forms of black consciousness and sound that polarized the jazz community.

The cultural histories of the homes of A'Lelia Walker, Estelle Bonds, Mary Lou Williams and Alice Coltrane illustrate how economic stability and personal agency allowed black women to become important agents in the progression of black intellectual culture and peripherally in the long struggle for racial equality in America. When we tune our ears to hear beyond clichés, gendered expectations, social conventions and canonic markers, we will discover that the real place of a woman is not only in the home, but also within the groove.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tammy Kernodle