‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ is a tribute to the great jazz pianist, composer and educator Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981), whose career spanned most of the twentieth century and who influenced and contributed to every major era of jazz, including swing, bebop, modal, funk and avant garde. The progression is borrowed from ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’, the title of which commemorates the Savoy Ballroom, where many swing era bands performed. The composers of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ include Benny Goodman and Chick Webb, each of whom led major bands of the swing era. (After his untimely death, the leadership of Webb’s band was taken up by its singer, Ella Fitzgerald.) Another somewhat lesser known but still successful group of the era was Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, which included Mary Lou Williams in a role she described as ‘composer, arranger and first-class chauffeur’. She also often sat in with the band on piano. As she described in an interview with Melody Maker, the Kirk band’s first performance in New York City was at the Roseland Ballroom, and from there ‘they moved to the celebrated Savoy Ballroom, where they faced Chick Webb’s orchestra. The Savoy was a place of tremendous enthusiasm, a home of fantastic dancing.’ Williams says the Kirk band ‘faced’ the Webb orchestra, emphasizing how the two bands were in competition as they alternated sets.
The melodic line for the A section of ‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ is inspired by Williams’ piano solo on one of the pieces she composed for the Kirk band, ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’. This piece is also often acknowledged as the source for her friend Thelonious Monk’s iconic tune ‘Rhythm-A-Ning’ (the phrase borrowed by Monk can be heard at 1:13). The inspiration for the bridge melody comes from a later Williams piece, ‘Rosa Mae’ from her 1974 album ‘Zoning’. This tune demonstrates her gift and passion for astutely absorbing the musical style of any era in which she found herself and transforming it into a personal expression. In ‘Rosa Mae’, she finds a fresh harmonic alteration of the blues progression (something she did as frequently and brilliantly as Duke Ellington) and combines it with a rock/funk groove that would be at home on albums like Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay’ or Herbie Hancock’s ‘Fat Albert Rotunda’. Another example of William’s remarkable stylistic breadth can be heard on her album ‘Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes’, which combines exploratory jazz piano duo and trio music with music for choir and jazz ensemble that is at once both spiritual and universal, and accessible while still being utterly original and modern.
‘Mary Lou at the Savoy’ should be practiced along with my Scale outline for Stompin’ at the Savoy. It is also important to listen to some of the many great versions of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’, including the original recording by the Chick Webb Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald’s vocal version from ‘Ella and Louis Again’, featuring the lyrics by Andy Razaf, Ahmad Jamal’s deconstruction of the tune, and Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Relaxin’ with Lee’, which uses the tune’s changes but not its melody.