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Mary Lou Williams’ Depression
It was June 1954, and the Parisian night was chilly enough for a wrap. However, Mary Lou Williams (MLW) ignored the nippiness, walking briskly towards the Hotel La Boêtie, having left the Le Boeuf sur le Toit (The Ox on the Roof) despondent, teeming with bitterness, anger, sadness, and homesickness for America.
Her depression finally punched through the façade of makeup and lipstick, forced smiles, lovely French couture evening gowns, piled up hair, French perfumes, expensive jewelry, champagne, marijuana, furs, and of course raison d’être - her music.
That June night in Paris would prove the turning point of her life. Many months of soul-searching lay ahead for Mary Lou where she would question the meaning, value, and purpose of her life and art.
Was Mary Lou Williams Having a Mental Breakdown?
More than likely the death of the jazz pianist Garland Wilson on May 31st, 1954, pushed her over the edge. She became friends with Garland in London and he joined her in Paris. But even before his passing, a malaise settled over Mary like winter and the rainy season hunkering down on a city.
MLW was isolating herself at the hotel and strolled around Paris alone and distant. On one of those occasions, she reported seeing the Virgin Mary in a church garden in correspondence to family members and friends. Was she having a mental breakdown?
Mary Lou Williams’ Cashflow Woes
The forty-four-year-old alluring MLW dipped in smooth dark rich chocolate, having spun the roulette wheel and betted on the 1952 European tour to reboot her career, found herself riding the same merry-go-round.
Despite club bookings, TV and radio guest appearances here and there, and invitations to the salons and mansions of the wealthy and powerful – MLW was still hard pressed financially and unable to finance a return trip to the States. In fact, MLW’s debts were mounting in Paris and her musical creativity was suffering too.
Mary Lou Williams’ Musical Creativity Straight-Jacketed
In Paris, MLW felt increasingly oppressed and straight jacketed by the demands of the European fans for boogie woogie tunes, and stagnated by the unimaginative stiff playing European musicians. While her soul hungered, clamored, and burned for bebop.
The situation was maddening for someone like Mary Lou who was always on the jazz cutting-edge. For example, MLW was among the first to experiment with utilizing singing voices as instruments; Lambert, Hendricks & Ross would hone the style, and Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau and others would take it to greater heights.
What’s more, Mary Lou Williams was among the first jazz pianists to explore the usage of the bongo, bass, and drums in her sets.
According to John S. Wilson, a New York Times writer,… During a tour of Europe, she became distressed at what she saw as the ''greed, selfishness and envy'' that impinged on her music…1
Mary Lou Williams’ Psychic Visions
Gèrard Pochonet, a French drummer in MLW’s trio, dropped by the Hotel La Boêtie to check on Mary Lou. Pochonet having fallen in love with the jazz pianist attempted to comfort her, but she rebuffed him. Nevertheless, he persisted and she caved in. Possibly because of the psychic visions and nightmares that were frightening her along with the urgent need to be physically held.
MLW had the gift of second sight and she was an intuitive. Perhaps she observed the apparition of the deceased Garland Wilson in her hotel room. In addition to the spirits of her pals: Dick Wilson a jazz tenor saxophonist, Jo Williams a banjo player, and Charlie Christian a swing and jazz guitarist, and the specters of the babies she aborted.
Mary Lou continued to work at the Le Boeuf sur le Toit to cover her day-to-day living expenses and for funds to return to the States. Also, she sent out an SOS to the black American expatriate community for assistance.
Mary Lou Williams and Gèrard Pochonet Became Lovers
Sometime in July, MLW left Paris to reside with Gèrard at his grandmother’s house in the countryside. Mary Lou ate, slept, read Psalms continuously and prayed.
In August, MLW managed to wiggle out of the contract with Le Boeuf sur le Toit, a gay French cabaret and bar. The cabaret offered her the gig after Garland Wilson’s death based on their close friendship. In late December of 1954, Mary Lou sailed to America leaving a heartbroken Gèrard Ponchonet.
Ultimately, MLW would pierce the chatter of uncertainty and overpower the allusion of her worthlessness. Moreover, she would emerge renewed from the experience. Decades later when asked about that period in her life during an interview, Mary Lou Williams would reply it was the turning point.
1. Mary Lou Williams, A Jazz Great, Dies, Wilson, John A. The New York Times, May 30, 1981.
2. Morning Glory, A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, Dahl, Linda, Random House, Inc.,c1999.
3. Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, Kernodle, Tammy L., Northeastern University Press, Boston, c2004.
I'm I. Cowthern -- I enjoy watching old black and white movies and listening to jazz, pop, rock, R&B, and classical music.