Sheroes Above Silence: The Lady Who Swings The Band

Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb

Photo credit: William P. Gottlieb

If you’re a musical genius, innovator, and charismatic professional doing your part to mold the legacy of an art-form with a spirit that won’t be denied, it’s not surprising you’re also a history changing, eternally inspiring, worldwide success. But what happens when you’re all these things…and a dark skinned Black woman in America with a career in music spanning from the 1930’s to the 1970’s?

…have you ever heard of Mary Lou Williams?

It’s said our entire lives get reduced to a single sentence in human history. That can mean the truth, power and energy of our contributions getting watered down… The term unsung (s)hero’ also used in this brilliant Ebony piece from 2013, still somehow takes the easy road to describe people–er–women, like Mary Lou Williams. She was of course a hero. Among many, deeper things, she was a hero because she was herself.

Photo by G. Jon Mili

Photo detail by G. Jon Mili

By no means however, was her contribution quiet or spectacular in only one way. She put together a string* of brave, bold, fierce, smart, creative, and game-changing moves over her entire life that caught the attention of the entire world. Yes, even legendary men…who learned from and admired her.


Legendary photograph by Art Kane

After 12 years of her own visions, talents, and actions– indie director and producer Carol Bash brought her award-winning film “The Lady Who Swings The Band” to Harlem Stage for an event we were front and center for, (thanks to Burt from The Duke Ellington Society!). With music by pianist, composer Geri Allen and a Q&A with author, scholar, historian Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, Mary Lou’s legacy was put in front of our eyes and into our souls. Better than that…her story, struggle and triumphs had us looking at our own.

Things That Make You Go, Wow:

  • PRETTY HURTS: After creating hundreds of works for jazz legends* including Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, being one of the best musician-arranger-composers in the world and refusing not to “sell sex” for success, Mary Lou was still not getting opportunities to work! She got cosmetic surgery aka “a nose job” to enhance her physical beauty and be more appealing.

Pretty Hurts

  • LEGENDS ON LEGENDS: Mary Lou mentored and engaged with those “young trouble-making cats” of the Be-Bop era, having “salons” at her house where serious music talk included the likes of Thelonius Monk, Jack Teagarden and Dizzy Gillespie!

Bebop Cats

Things That Make You Go, Hmm:

  • THE INNER CIRCLE: Carol Bash mentioned being an “outsider” to the film industry as a Black female director, and being a documentary* filmmaker pushing her to “outside, outsider.” You think the film project would have taken less time and had more support if this was different? If she was telling a different story?

Drake Be Yourself

  • SHE WOKE UP LIKE DIS: Mary Lou is described in the film as a focused, gifted, creative, emotional, sexual, spiritual, educational leader and visionary who would not sell herself for fame. Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin spoke on the approach of Carol Bash’s storytelling being groundbreaking itself. “Black women are almost not allowed to be represented as full and complex people.

  • VALID OR NAH?: “She had a hard time maintaining relationships as a result of being such a complex person.” Do you think that’s the case for any complex person, any complex woman, any woman of color, or any creative genius?

Kanye Dope Things

  • OUR CHALLENGE: Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin (FTW again!), saying “We need to create spaces for people like Mary Lou Williams to grow and not be stopped.”

…but we digress…

…Mary Lou Williams’ music is available on digital and streaming services. You can contact Carol Bash and the crew about a public or private screening via the Mary Lou Williams Project website here! Also check out the music of Geri Allen and the books “Harlem Nocturne” by Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin and “Morning Glory” by Linda Dahl.

While Mary Lou Williams and Carol Bash’s film are the first of their kind, let’s make them being unheard, unknown, and “unsung,” the last!


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