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Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams

Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams

Editorial Review

From Publishers Weekly

In a time when the music of Harlem was beginning to stake a claim on the racially mixed Greenwich Village clientele, Williams, a young black pianist, trained her sights on a more classical venue. In 1947 she reached it, leading Carnegie Hall’s New York Philharmonic in a boogie-woogie symphony of her own composition. Williams began her jazz career as a teenager accompanying orchestras “by ear.” She soon taught herself to read and write music and gained a reputation as a masterful arranger. Her influence on the evolution of jazz spanned four decades from ragtime to bop, and can be heard in the works of jazz giants from Duke Ellington to Charlie Parker. Many musicians attribute her with genius, but lasting popular recognition has eluded her. Dahl’s (Stormy Weather) narrative, while well researched, lacks the vibrancy needed to launch Williams to the fame she nearly obtained and so clearly deserves. Using a plethora of quotations, Dahl reconstructs Williams’s evolution as a prodigy, a mystic, a bohemian and a religious convert, but she offers little insight into Williams’s character: Dahl tells us that Williams was shy, but follows with stories of a very sassy nature; she announces that Williams’s telepathic gift haunted her throughout her life, but offers scarce anecdotal evidence. Nonetheless, Dahl’s comprehensive appendixes of discography, compositions and arrangements are a boon to jazz scholars, and despite its defects, this biography remains an important step toward recognizing the achievements of a remarkable woman. (Feb.)

From Library Journal

Dahl, a frequent contributor to jazz publications and the author of Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women, presents here an overdue and definitive portrait of one of the 20th century’s most important and overlooked jazz figures, the troubled pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams. Relating Williams’s story without sentimentality or sensationalism, Dahl portrays her as a woman who transcended economic and gender obstacles to create an enduring legacy in the notoriously male-dominated world of jazz. Although the book does not require familiarity with music theory, it manages to interweave the details of Williams’s life with the development of her music and her contributions to a variety of styles. Dahl details Williams’s influence on and collaboration with some of the premier names in jazz–Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, and Bud Powell–and her late-life religious conversion that resulted in a number of ambitious sacred music projects. This highly readable title is essential for jazz studies collections, suitable for women’s history collections, and recommended for all collections.

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