After no more than 30 seconds, she stopped me.
That’s nice. You can blow.
But you need to go back to the roots. Do you know about Fats Waller?
That day, Mary Lou Williams taught me a great lesson.
One that applies to much more than music.
She taught me not to skip steps.
I met her only one time.
It was the summer of 1980. I was visiting Duke University as a National Endowment For The Arts Artist-In-Residence. Since Ms. Williams, a living legend in the world of jazz, lived in Durham, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be in her presence and learn from this musical icon.
Mary Lou Williams — pianist, composer, arranger, collaborator with Duke Ellington, mentor to Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk — was at the epicenter of the early evolution of the jazz art.
And here I was, in her home studio, sitting at her piano, Ms. Williams standing beside me.
Her first instruction: “Play me some blues, young man.”
I nervously lit into a version of Bud Powell’s ‘Dance of The Infidels’ that was about twice the recorded tempo.
I played so fast partially because I was scared to death. And, I was also a cocky kid who wanted to show off.
Alas, my 20-year-old ego was soon dealt a crushing blow.
Ms. Williams stopped me in the middle of my second chorus.
‘Okay. That’s fine. You can blow.
You like Bud, don’t you?’
‘ Yes, ma’am.’
‘I taught Bud Powell – and Monk too.’
‘Now show me what you can do with your left hand. Do you know Teddy Wilson? Nat Cole? Fats Waller? Art Tatum?’.
I responded weakly – “I have listened to them - but not very much”.
The matronly Ms. Williams looked at me with great kindness.
Then she laid it out.
You need to go back to Fats Waller.
(Fats Waller? I thought. Ain’t Misbehavin’ Fats Waller? You mean that hokey, corny stride stuff? Come on, aren’t you impressed with my bebop? I can play even faster. Are you seriously telling me to study Fats Waller?)
Do you know Hilton Ruiz?’
‘Yes. I love his playing’.
‘I took him all the way back to Fats Waller, and that’s what you need to do.’
The rest of the lesson was a blur.
I walked out of her front door grateful but humbled.
I came in to show off my bebop chops, she listened for a few seconds to my virtuoso ramblings, and then told me to look backwards.
Heeding her advice was one of the best decisions I could have ever made. By studying jazz’ deeper roots, I was eventually to find a rootedness and strength in my own playing that could not have come any other way.
Sometimes going back is the best way to move forward.
Mary Lou knew the secret. Don’t skip steps.
Build a solid foundation for whatever you want to learn.
I think much of the mess we are in as a nation right now is directly related to our collective tendency to skip steps.
We skip steps — rushing past the best practices proven effective in other countries — contact tracing, comprehensive testing, appropriate physical distancing — so that we can get back to ‘business as usual’ — and Covid-19 cases continue to skyrocket, killing more American citizens during the first half of 2020 than who perished in wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — plus 9/11 — combined.
We skip steps — refusing to honestly address the dual legacies of enslavement and indigenous genocide — and continue to see increased economic inequality, social unrest and political polarization plus a continued rise in domestic terrorism, sometimes wielded by those whose duty is to protect and serve.
We skip steps — electing and enabling a president whose entire personal and professional life has been characterized by shortcuts, deception, criminality, bullying, and fraud — and we suffer the rampant destruction of the rule of law and the greatest threat American democracy has ever faced.
We skip steps — refusing to make the sacrifices necessary to transform to renewable, sustainable energy sources — and now stand on the edge of a climate crisis that could result in the extinction of the human species.
From my perspective, this tendency to rush to quick solutions, to avoid thinking too deeply and having the tough conversations we’ve neglected can only lead to more difficulty, discord, and disaster.
So let’s not buy into this step-skipping, impatient, quick-fix culture.
Whatever steps we skip today we’ll eventually have to deal with anyway.
Thanks, Mary Lou.
We need your wisdom now more than ever.