Books by Linda Dahl

Released: Feb. 15, 2000

An uninspired but thorough recounting of the life of the once renowned jazz pianist and composer, a "musician's musician." Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was born with a caul, a portent of special powers. And indeed, when Mary was four years old, she repeated note for note the song her mother had just been playing on the piano. Williams never stopped playing, hitting the road as a 14-year-old with a group called Hits ‘n Bits, playing split weeks and one-nighters across the Midwest, meeting her first husband, saxophonist John Williams. The road trip lasted for years, reaching its apex during the Depression, when she was part of the now celebrated Kansas City jazz scene, playing with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy and frequenting after-hours clubs—a "jazz Juilliard," says the author—to listen and jam. Williams's fortunes were as volatile as those of any (especially any female) jazzman, and Dahl reports them all in sometimes numbing detail. On the upside, Williams wrote and arranged for such notables as Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, was booked for lengthy gigs at the chic Cafe Society in New York, cut records, and even had her own national fan club for a while. Her sophisticated Zodiac Suite was performed at Carnegie Hall. But she often shot herself in the foot, developing a gambling addiction and turning down opportunities that could have advanced her finances and her career. Eventually converting to Catholicism, she devoted herself to prayer, good works, and writing sacred music. Her last years were spent teaching at Duke University, where she also worked on a history of jazz. Dahl (Stormy Weather, 1989, not reviewed) appends a discography plus comprehensive lists of Williams's compositions and arrangements and other artists' recordings of her work. A fact- and quote-packed story, the first full-length overview of Williams's life, which cries out desperately for more discriminating interpretation. (24 pages b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >