By Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn
I first met Carol Bash last November when the first-time director agreed to screen her just-completed film, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band, at an annual conference of the Journalism and Women Symposium – although, we had been corresponding via telephone and on various podcasts for about three years prior; after I stumbled across her 12-minute work-in-progress reel for the Mary Lou project while working on my own jazz women documentary.
Eleven years in the making, The Lady Who Swings the Band tells the little told story of one of the major icons of jazz. In February 2015, the film made its world premiere at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, receiving the Programmers’ Award for best documentary ahead of its national run on PBS in April. Carol returns to the Southland on Sunday, July 19 for a one-show-only screening of the film at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, featuring a live jazz performance and Q&A, moderated by Robin D.G. Kelley.
As both a fan of Mary Lou’s music, and as a storyteller, I immediately gravitated to Carol’s film about the first lady of jazz piano, and was captivated by the filmmaker’s narrative exploration of an artist fighting to create music in a world that could not see past her color or gender. From what was considered Mary Lou’s “divine calling” to music – she taught herself to play piano at age six – the story weaves through Williams’ near-six decade career, revealing her lost loves and shattered dreams, and an industry that almost drove her to madness.
As a musician, composer and arranger, Williams’ work is unmatched even among today’s most noted jazz artists. Having mentored the likes of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie, her collaborations with Dick Wilson, Art Blakey and Duke Ellington – to name a few – produced some of the most successful compositions in the genre. With more than a dozen albums in her discography, spanning from swing to classical; blues to gospel, she was one of the leading musical voices in bop. (Remember Dizzy’s “Land of Oo-Bla-Dee”? That was all Mary Lou!)
Beyond the engaging concert footage of Williams, we get to hear her work through select performances by noted jazz pianist Geri Allen, along with Grammy winning bassist-vocalist, Esperanza Spalding, and Grammy winning drummer-producer, Terri Lyne Carrington. Actress Alfre Woodard narrates the project.
For her part, Carol has worked on numerous prestige projects, most notably Stanley Nelson’s Emmy Award-winning films, Freedom Riders and A Place of Our Own, and Marco Williams’ Banished, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. She was also part of the production team for the PBS series, African American Lives.
Just off a train from New York City, Carol spoke to me by phone while in Philadelphia on Tuesday, right before a screening of the film at Scribe Video, an independent film organization which also screens Emmy-consideration films as well for their members.
JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Let’s start by catching up on what’s happening since the PBS run of the film, and where you’re headed with the project.
CAROL BASH: So what’s happening now is that the film is out on the film festival circuit. It’s pretty much finished its run for the moment on PBS. There might be some broadcast dates coming up maybe later on in the year or probably next year during Black History Month they’ll rebroadcast the film. The agreement with PBS was that they would air it four times. So those runs are pretty much slowing down now. But it is really picking up on the film festival circuit. I’m coming back to L.A. for Friends of Jazz at UCLA this weekend, and then I’m off to Rwanda for the Rwanda Film Festival, then screening in August at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, rounding out in September for the big New York City premiere. So things are cooking on the festival circuit for Mary Lou.
As I was thinking about your journey with this project with this great lady in jazz, it occurred to me that there were two men very influential in the inception and making of this film: your father-in-law and Mary Lou Williams’ longtime manager, Father Peter O’Brien – both of whom are now deceased. Can you talk about the inspiration they gave you, and the legacy of Mary Lou they left with you?
Wow! Well, I would say with my father-in-law it really starts with his love of Mary Lou. We would not be having a conversation, there would be no movie, had it not been for him being a fan of her music and me hearing it at my in-laws house. That started the whole journey where I was listening to what was playing on the stereo and just asked him that question: ‘Who is this playing?’ And he said, ‘That’s Mary Lou Williams. She’s one of the greats.’ He was really a jazz head, he knew of the most obscure to the giants. He just had a love of the art form and passed it along to me in a small way because I have now become a huge fan of Mary Lou Williams, who I had never heard of.
And with Father Peter O’Brien, once I’d heard of Mary Lou and started digging into her work and her life, learning the incredible music and legacy she left behind, a lot of that is due to Father O’Brien who had been her champion throughout the last part of her life, and, of course, 30 years after her death until his death just recently. He was like the missing link to her, in a way. He knew her so well, and knew her music inside and out, and all of those conversations and all of that collaboration with him has inspired me and informed me about how to go forward in talking about this incredible woman and her art.
During your Q&A at the Pan African Film Festival in February, you mentioned being on a journey to continue Mary Lou’s mission to bring the music to the people, “the healing and the love of it.” Now that Father O’Brien has passed, does that make the mission even more weighted?
Yes. Yes, because it’s sort of like the patriarch dying and now it’s up to the next generation to carry the torch. For so long, he was really the torch-bearer of who she was, and the legacy of her life, and we, artists who really appreciate and want to tell her story, always had him to guide us, and sort of inform us. But he’s gone now, and so it’s really up to us now, the next generation – the people he kind of molded, and brought along to teach her works and even to people who believed in my project as well – to carry on and not let her and what she stood for, the art and her genius die, and go back to being a footnote. So, yeah, it’s heavy. It’s heavy. I feel like – and I’m sure I can speak for Geri Allen who has played her music for decades, and Carmen Lundy, who has sung her music – it’s up to us to really go forth and be apostles in a way — going back to the religious theme, which seems so relative. (laughs) But, yeah, that’s how I see it. The torch is now been passed onto us, and we’ve got to keep it going.
Looking back on this multi-year journey to tell this story of Mary Lou, what were some of your challenges as a first-time director, trying to get a story about a black woman jazz musician who was little regarded by the public – and even now among those within the jazz community?
I think you said it all in your question. (laughs) Everything you mentioned was a challenge. The main challenge was getting funders. It’s always about the money, right? It wasn’t a cheap film to make, so it was really about getting the financial support to do justice to the topic, and to make it the best film it could be. The other challenges are just what you stated. I had no track record. I had experience, but I didn’t have a track record as a filmmaker. Mary Lou – nobody really knew who she was so she was this obscure figure. It’s arts, and culture, and historical – everything that, basically, a lot of funders are not looking to fund these days when it comes to documentary films.
Luckily there are those that you sort of rally over the years — and years and years – because the funding trailers have been circling around, so people got to know the project. There were those funders that did stand up and give support, and I had an incredible team of filmmakers and talent who believed in the project, and believed in me, who stood behind me and leant their names so I could have that cache attached to get that primary funding. But, yeah, I would say the challenge was always getting the funding to keep going. It was never in my psyche that I would drop the project. I knew it would take time, but that it was going to happen.
One of the filmmakers who really championed the project was Stanley Nelson. What role did he play behind-the-scenes on the film?
Stanley was my executive producer, but that doesn’t really explain the incredible involvement that he had – the guidance, the collaboration – in helping me tell this story. Very early on in the project, which has now been a 12 year journey, so 11 years ago he became my executive producer. From reading proposals and looking at rough cuts, and looking at all the fundraising trailers and calling me up and giving me advice. There was no question I couldn’t ask. He was a mentor, and to have a filmmaker of his caliber extend his hand to give back and say: I’m there. I’m with you, I support you. It’s a blessing. It’s truly a blessing.
The other thing he did, when Firelight started their Filmmakers’ Lab, he invited me to the lab, and that was a whole other circle of support for mentoring. So he’s just been integral in helping the film grow. Helping me grow as a filmmaker. I’m forever grateful for it.
Over the weekend, I had some Mary Lou moments: listening to her work, and watching some of her live performances on YouTube. There are times when she’s so concentrated on her work, then she breaks into a big smile like she knows she just laid it down. It’s mesmerizing to watch her. Now that you’ve connected with her, were there moments with Mary Lou that left you awestruck?
Hmmm…to have to think of one thing. Wow! For me, it’s not just watching her play because that is, yes, watching the concentration on her face and seeing how deeply she goes into the music, and how expertly and lovingly she plays her music. I think also for me it was also looking at the footage, there’s B-roll footage where she was visiting Atlanta and she’s talking to her brother, those moments when she’s on the road and interacting with other people – she’s really this feisty woman with a great sense of humor. She loved telling jokes apparently. So anything that brought her to life on screen to me just captivated me because it was really the only way I ever saw her. I didn’t see her in real life while she was here on this planet so any moment where I’m looking at the Real McCoy, whether through music playing, or her interacting with the people around her, I was spellbound just to watch her on screen.
And yet despite her talent, she really had to fight to be taken seriously. The film reveals how the music was so male controlled that it was difficult for women to find respect. Still, more than 30 years since her death, and the refrain is the same for women musicians today. Why?
I do think that jazz is still masculine oriented, and god knows it’s way better than it was when Mary Lou was coming up. We have phenomenal female artists who are out there, and doing it strongly. But then we’re still having issues of why there are no women in the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. I turn on WBGO-FM, which is a New Jersey jazz radio station here in my tristate area of New York, and nine out of 10 times, we’re listening to male-led jazz works. There’s still an issue where women have not broken a certain ceiling. It’s gotten better, but there’s still work to do.
Have you seen attitudes opening up about women in jazz as you’ve started tour the film? Or is this just a small piece of a larger picture that needs to be addressed in enlightening people about the contributions – past and present – of women jazz musicians?
There have been other films that have dealt with women in jazz, and their place in jazz and why those women are kind of unknown, or fell by the wayside. I think all of those films do their part to bring awareness to the incredible contributions women have had in this music. My film on Mary Lou, I think, is just a part of a larger movement that is taking off – even with your film. It’s all doing its part to bring awareness to, and focus on the issues that women in jazz still face, and on the talent that still, to some extent, is unexplored.
Since this interview is for the African Artists’ Association, do you have any final words that you think could be relevant to this group of filmmakers and artists?
The other thing that I feel very strongly about, and has been a pleasure and an honor for me, is that as an African American woman I’ve been allowed to tell a story of another African American woman, and it’s really critical that we continue to tell our own stories. There’s a huge trend in that the money and the access are going to people who aren’t of our communities telling our stories, and I’m talking now as a filmmaker. This has been something that I have been honored to do.
Learn more about the project at http://marylouwilliamsproject.com/