Carmen Lundy Talks About Mary Lou Williams, Music, and Life

By Janice Rhoshalle LittlejohnAugust 28, 2015

ALTHOUGH I’D KNOWN of Carmen Lundy’s music for many years, the first time I had a chance to interview her was by happenstance, back in February at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles following the premiere screening of the Carol Bash documentary Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band. Lundy is a featured performer in the opening and was also interviewed for the film. Sitting next to her in the theater, my reporter self couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my smartphone and asked her a few questions about what she thought of the film, and about Mary Lou.

“I feel that Mary Lou's story tells the history of our music,” she said. “She's the personification of the music I've loved all my life, and it's great to know that one person's contribution has mattered so much and still matters and will always matter."

And at the time, I posted the quote as part of a small piece about the film on my LinkedIn blog knowing little about how deep Lundy’s connection was to Williams, an iconic jazz composer and arranger, whom the masters Thelonious Monk, Buddy Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie turned to for inspiration about the art. Her compositions, more than 300 of them, ran the gamut from swing to bop to Catholic masses. Her career spanned nearly six decades — she died in 1981 — in which she collaborated with such essential people in the music as Dick Wilson, Art Blakey, and Duke Ellington and produced more than a dozen albums of her own work. And yet, Williams’s work is not as well regarded as that of her male peers of the time.

Like Williams, Lundy has had to carve her own path outside the traditional confines of record companies and studios, becoming one of the few jazz vocalists to have catalogued over 100 published songs, which led to the first publication of the Carmen Lundy Songbook in 2007. Lundy’s songs have been recorded by such artists as Kenny Barron (“Quiet Times”), Ernie Watts (“At the End of My Rope”), and Straight Ahead (“Never Gonna Let You Go”). Her newest release, Soul to Soul, her 14th solo project, was produced through her own Afrasia Productions and features a collection of original tunes, as well as “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory,” a cover of the popular Mary Lou tune.

Last spring, Lundy took to the Harlem Stage Gatehouse in New York City to embody Williams through song and monologue scripted by Farah Jasmine Griffin, whose recent book, Harlem Nocturne, focuses in part on Williams. Geri Allen, who is also in the Bash documentary, performed in the stage production. S. Epatha Merkerson, the actress widely known from the TV series Law & Order, directed. These principals will reprise the production on May 16 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, as part of the Mary Lou Williams Festival.

“The interesting thing about Carmen Lundy is that she has an amazing facility as a singer, and she’s one of the few singers that can translate that into speaking, and to acting so I found her extraordinarily easy to work with,” said Merkerson, whom I caught up with in Beverly Hills during the summer Television Critics Press Tour. “Singers always get a little nervous when they have to open their mouths [to act], ‘But the same thing you feel when you’re singing is the same thing I feel when I’m acting. There are the words, and you’re translating the words,’ I said, and she did an extraordinary job. I’m so looking forward to being with her again.”

One can’t claim to really know Carmen Lundy without getting to know Mary Lou, as I would learn during my near three-hour visit with Lundy the first hour and a half spent touring her modest Woodland Hills home, every inch brimming with treasured instruments from around the world, collectibles, paintings, and sculptures: much of which she, self-taught in the visual arts, creates herself. Beyond pianist Geri Allen, Lundy is likely one of few women artists in jazz who have studied Williams’s entire repertoire of music that has become an essential thread throughout the vocalist’s approach to her music, but also in her approach to the business of the music.


JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: Let’s start with how you connected with director Carol Bash and the Mary Lou film project?

CARMEN LUNDY: I’ve been working with Mary Lou’s music — I only met her once …

You met her?

I saw her play once: to be specific, maybe my first or second year of living in New York City, at the Jazz Mobile — that summer outdoor free thing where the music would be set up and people would just come out and listen, and it was one of those kinds of things. And I went to one with Mary Lou Williams. Hilton Ruiz [the late Nuyorican jazz pianist] was studying with Mary Lou Williams at that time. So it was knowing Hilton, and Hilton saying, “You have to come check this sister out.” That was the one and only time. And it had to be in the late ’70s, maybe 1980, because she passed away in ’81.

In 1982–’83, I get a phone call from Father Peter O’Brien. He was a priest and also her manager — he managed her career for the last 17 years of her life — and he was explaining the Mary Lou Williams Foundation to me and asking me to fulfill some of Mary Lou’s wishes by going into parochial schools in Manhattan, picking out children, and teaching them her mass. Mary Lou’s foundation was about children and informing the future of the music by bringing them into the fold. And she thought a perfect way to do this — because she converted to Catholicism in the ’70s — was to bring the children into jazz through her newfound experience with and connection with Catholicism.

So Peter O’Brien — and he just passed away a couple of months ago — is the link between me and Carol. Starting then, in the 1980s, I began to perform Mary Lou’s mass in many different settings, from the National Cathedral in Washington to the Kennedy Center to Detroit. We’ve even done pieces from it in Disney Hall. So I’ve been a guest vocalist representing her music, and I’ve arranged choral pieces — so all of that went on. And Carol, as I understand it, was visiting a parent or a family member …

Her father-in-law.

Yes, her father-in-law, and that music was playing one day, and she said, “Who is that?” and that’s how Carol discovered Mary Lou, and said, “People need to know about this woman.” That’s when she found and contacted Father O’Brien. For her documentary, The Lady Who Swings the Band, I guess she felt she needed a vocalist to replicate that time when Mary Lou was performing that because that song, “The Lady Who Swings the Band,” had lyrics, and this was a way to bring Carmen Lundy into the story of Mary Lou because of my experience in North Carolina, which is where I first met Carol at Duke University, because she was there interviewing a few of us about Mary Lou. The clip you see at the end of the film with me saying something about Mary Lou — that clip is from our first time meeting at Duke University at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. So that’s when I first met Carol.

The second time was when I came to New York to be part of the filming that took place at Manhattan School of Music.

Was that the performance with Geri Allen?

And Wyclef Gordon, and the rest.

Okay, gotcha. So what was it about Mary Lou after seeing her perform back at that free concert that led you to do all you’ve done to continue her music? I mean, you can certainly appreciate the music, but you’ve actually become something of a student of Mary Lou Williams.

I think I got a posthumous music lesson from Mary Lou, I really do. I think I got a music theory course from Mary Lou, and I say that with so much joy and respect. It happened when I had to teach myself the mass that I was going to have to teach the kids. So I’d have to sit down and look at this [she opens her hands as if reading sheet music] and I think I even did a couple of her pieces that were not intended for choir, some of her earlier works — “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory” was one that I sang as well for that concert that Father O’Brien called me to do. There was a concert at Symphony Space that same year and he called me to work with the kids. That was the first concert celebrating her music, in 1985, or ’86, or it could have been earlier.

So I am teaching myself Mary Lou and she is teaching me. I don’t know her music before this. Literally, I opened up the music to her work and began playing it. It wasn’t even like I got records. I think Peter maybe had a tape cassette of one of her records of the mass, and there was this recording of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater of Harlem — that was the first time Mary Lou’s mass is performed.

Is that the performance we see in the film with dancer Judith Jamison performing?

Yes. So there’s all this connection. And I’m learning Mary Lou’s mass from the piano up to this other stuff. Having been composing prior to this, and figuring things out along the way as I’ve always done, being a band leader and everything, I’m like, “Oh, this is a nice [phrasing]. This is great! Oh, I see what she’s doing here!” But then I begin realizing that so much of her work is rooted in the blues, and as complex as her harmonies were written, her forms, certain sounds that she chose, almost always did a dominant seventh — and I’m getting into all these musical terms now — that really opened me up as a composer to how crucial she felt about it, that it always somehow lined up in the blues, one way or another. Everything came out of that, and it was just so broad.

Another thing that’s cool about the mass was that she incorporated the rhythms from that point in American music — the funk, James Brown, the Bossa Nova, that era of the late ’60s, early ’70s — all the rhythms that were becoming a part of the mainstream. Aretha Franklin was coming out of the church, the gospel, and the Bossa Nova. This was a cool time — actually as I speak of this, I remember, it was a cool time in American music because you had all of those things going on at the same time, and they were all popular forms, and everybody was being celebrated for what we were all doing — from [composer, singer, pianist-guitarist Antônio Carlos] Jobim in Brazil to Mary Lou. What she did was she took all of these rhythmic concepts and infused them into the compositions that are now part of Mary Lou’s mass. For me that was the greatest lesson I could have gotten — to learn from a master like that and to incorporate those ideas into the way I approach my compositions.

As you’re speaking of this idea of all these musical styles and rhythms being infused in Mary Lou’s work, how can jazz now be part of “the healing and the loving” as Mary Lou would say in this day and age considering so many — both young and old disregard the music as either inaccessible or unpopular or just old people’s music?

How interestingly complex and timely your question is — and I’m doing a short video about this very thing you’re asking me, which I’ll tell you about in a minute. There’s one thing that made that time different from now. I was born in the early to mid-’50s. So this was just around the time that Ray Charles started singing [she sings, snapping her fingers] “Yes I can … duh, duh, dum. Yes I can … duh, duh, duh, duh. Yes, I can!” Okay! [laughs] It was like, gospel was in all of the music and you couldn’t stop that force. So then you’ve got Ray Charles and Aretha. The Beatles. Motown.

And all of this is surfacing in our culture, and during that time in public education in American schools from coast to coast, there were music courses — that time when maybe you and your contemporaries were in school, some kind of music education was going on in primary school and middle school — even before you get to high school — kids were picking instruments. But around the time that shift in attitude about the music began, we also started to see those things disappearing in our early orientations to music.

That early orientation was left up to churches, for people who had an interest that way — just the individual person who valued that for their children and their own quality of life. And along with that shift, people were able to have a certain palette, a basic understanding, to know what they’re even listening to, not from a level of pure language — which is what I think is what we get with hip-hop. But as rhythmic as it is, the melodic truth in what’s being said lost its value and was swallowed up in the rhythm. We all know there’s melody in rhythm — rhy-thm — that’s a melody right there just saying it.

But personally, if it wasn’t for the rest of the world, I couldn’t have a career because nobody’s ever invited me to sing in Chicago with my band to this very day — things like that. That’s Middle America.

But Chicago has traditionally been a jazz town …

And I can’t get a gig. That’s answering your question. We’re so driven by pop culture and being told what matters, and the people that are fortunate enough to get the money and the marketing — the things that shape careers now — behind them will dictate what the public likes and does not like, because the public doesn’t know the same fundamental aspects of what shapes musical cultures around the planet.

We don’t place value on live entertainment. Now we can cough up $85, $95, a hundred dollars a ticket to go into an arena with 10,000 other people to take in something live. But we can’t take 10 bucks, 20 bucks, 30 bucks to get in our cars and go to wherever the nearest place is and just listen to some great live music. So our culture, particularly in Los Angeles, you don’t have this built into the quality of life, in the everyday life of anybody in L.A. We need to have those experiences, and part of what makes it a musical journey is that you’re listening and I’m playing. It’s not just me going in there and doing this. We need each other to improve how we relate to what’s meaningful.

I can remember starting out and going out, being in New York and watching Mary Lou Williams, watching Dizzy Gillespie, listening to Miles Davis, listening to Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, and Nina Simone — being in the room checking it out because these were the masters. I remember that.

Now I’m looking at myself doing the very same thing to make a name for myself and coming smack dab up against whatever the pop is at that time. I watched myself evolve as a vocalist, coming up the way I’m supposed to, learning from all of those people. So by the time I got around to making records and making my own mark, I came up against an audience that wasn’t necessarily making that shift with me because they were going to our sisters like Whitney [Houston] — and I’m in the Chaka Khan generation. But I really felt that I had a better chance in jazz music, because I felt that I could not compete at that time with those very popular voices.

Why didn’t you think you could compete?

Well, see, I thought I had the leg up in jazz. I thought it was like: I’m going over here because there was a lot of room here. Over there with the pop divas, you had to go sideways just to get into the door. So I felt like I was onto something beautiful, and the way those musicians would just get all up in it. I like that. So I’m goin’ with that. For me it was never: I’m doing exactly what I know was imprinted for me.

My issue is, then, speaking of the older generation: How dare you expect for me to sing the same songs that made Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson! You want me to come in here and do all of them through me. I started out that way. But when I released my first album, Morning Kiss, which had five original compositions on it and three standards — because the standards are all about, “Well, can she sing? Or can she sing?” — that’s what the standards are all about. “Can she handle this?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I got that. And I got this too? Are y’all ready for it?” And that’s when I hit, bang!, everything just veered [she makes a swerving off the road noise], the road bent a little bit. As long as I was singing my “Bye Bye Blackbird,” everything was okay. But the moment I veered [swerving off the road sound effect]. . .

So you have an older generation wanting standards and young people wanting hip-hop and pop music. How can you see bringing jazz a musical ideology born in America back to America, and back to black Americans, in the same way it’s being embraced in Japan and throughout Europe?

Some things I don’t have the answers for. I don’t know why. In this thing I’m about to release through my website, this video of conversations with musicians about how we feel about the music, one of the musicians, a pianist, said he that did a master class with black kids, you know, black school, with piano, bass, and drums, and told them, “This is jazz,” and they played a little bit, and then they had questions, and one little black kid raised his hands right away and said, “Why you playin’ all this white people’s music for us?”

When I first started traveling the world back in the ’70s, people thought America was jazz, Coca Cola, and Muhammad Ali, baby. You hear me? I’m not kidding you. Those were the three things that were American. First time I saw a black man on a postcard, I was in the middle of Damascus, Syria, or maybe I was in Cairo, Egypt. I was walking down the street, and it was Muhammad Ali, on a postcard. Like a superhero. And I haven’t seen that to this day anywhere in a gift shop, anywhere, in these United States. Not that it’s not there. I haven’t seen it. And this was back in the ’70s.

So think about it. This little kid is sitting in class with brothas on the bandstand tellin’ him the deal, and that’s what he hears. That’s the true source of that issue — that means something in their environment is absent.

Today in America, we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, that black people and black culture matter. We’re talking about race and building bridges and connections between races, but there seems to be a lack of appreciation or awareness on both sides of where jazz comes from, and its place in so many social movements Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mary Lou, and Nina Simone all spoke to the struggles of their day. How can we be talking about how black lives matter, and galvanizing movements, and not have a connection to this music?

We have to take a hard look at our communities. We have to take a hard look at the one place we all galvanize our voices once a week. These churches. Our churches. It is the one true core. This Sunday morning coming. Those young people in the pulpit who are taking the mantel from the people who built the churches. Physically. The ones who got ’em up. Those men are handing the mantle over to our next generation, and the ideology has not included the value of the music.

I would love to have a conversation with you that’s so not this. I would love to be able to talk to you about, “Yeah, this is a great time for the music. Wow!” and “It’s such a beautiful thing that’s happening — check out all these young people at our concerts and buying our records,” I would love to be able to talk like that. And I feel like I’m doing my part.

A reviewer of Soul to Soul praised you for continuing to set your own course in your music.” What was the journey that led you to those original compositions? They speak to what’s going on today in the same way that Nina and Billie spoke to issues of their time.

I felt that I needed to let the audience in on the fact that I’m in the now too. That my experience in music, in jazz, reflects the now. My tune “Gossip,” for example, is a tune about people’s inability to accept people for who they are, regardless of their sexual orientation. Nobody’s ever sung a song like that, in that way. It’s a really fast, uptempo swingin’ tune.

I remember writing the tune “Love Thy Neighbor” — Soul to Soul is a continuation of the last record, Changes, and on Changes there’s a song called “Love Thy Neighbor” — and like a month later that thing happened with Trayvon Martin and with the neighborhood watch crazy dude.

George Zimmerman.

Yes, that guy. And I notice a lot of what I sing about, and have been singing about, are the experiences of viewing the eyes as an American at home and viewing the eyes as a black American woman in jazz, from abroad. These come through you.

When I hear “Grace,” I hear “Amazing Grace,” I’m basing a new song on that underlying melody. And just hearing that and knowing deep down inside everybody understands what I’m singing about. People that don’t know that “Amazing Grace,” what really happened: go check out why that guy wrote that, why that guy wrote those words to that melody of those slaves that were hummin’ under that ship. Understand that and you’ll know who you are, and our contributions to this planet. For all time.

And then there’s “Don’t You Know How I Feel”: that’s my way of doing something swing without it sounding like back-in-the-day, but this is the way we feel it today, at this moment. And jazz is about the moment. So many people are expecting it to sound the same every time.

Jazz was always an evolving music, and I’m not sure how we got to this place where everything is supposed to sound like what happened in the past. What do we do about an audience that doesn’t get that there’s something new happening in the music?

Here’s what I want to do — I’m gonna do it, I don’t know how, but it’s what I wanna do — starting with my video: find somebody who is willing to invest with me in a project that puts jazz on television every freakin’ week. I don’t care what you call it — “Soul Train meets Jazz” — and program it as an afternoon show for kids, so kids will go, “Mom, I want to see that artist,” and then the parents are taking the kids to see the artist the kids want to see, right? Now the parents are like, “Whoa! Wow!” [claps her hands] Everybody is connecting.

We associate a lot of our connection and values with what we see, and since we depend on this visual medium for our information, even more than word of mouth — we don’t depend on word of mouth like we used to — even if we’re using Facebook and Twitter, and that’s word of mouth, it’s coming through a visual medium, see what I’m saying? And because of this, and how it impacts our culture and our daily lives, I really think that’s the one missing component in making us visible to the rest of the world as an integral part of what life is like in American culture. I don’t know if we can do that with public radio stations that play jazz at either end of the dial. That’s not enough, and that’s all we’ve got.

We’ve talked a lot about the music, but you’re also a businesswoman in the music and clearly you’re thinking a lot about how to monetize the music and get it out there in a broader way. Was that something that came out of necessity?

Yes, necessity. When I began songwriting and released my first CD, I had to fund that project. Prior to that I was taking money from some performances that I could set aside to maybe take some musicians in a studio to do a demo, because that’s what we did back then. You couldn’t just use a computer to make all of your stuff sound great. So around that time, I was saving a little money, and I took an initiative to approach someone to get some funding to do a project, a recording, and I used that money to make the recording, and I used that recording to get a record contract with Columbia Records. I’d had several meetings prior to that, and I kept making more and more demos for Columbia because that’s what my goal was, to get a contract from them.

Finally they were interested, and then the whole thing fell apart. I still don’t know why. But I had this product, and my manager at the time took it to another entity, and they released it as a licensed product. So now this is something I owned. Now I’m the owner of masters, and to protect my interests with my compositions on that record, I became a publisher. I protected the ownership of the composition and that master. So I began the whole business side, as a publisher and owner of the compositions that I write.

Was that an easy transition to make as an artist, to managing the business end of your work?

It goes hand in hand, and in the end, you have to look at your own interests. If I play a concert, nobody’s saying, “We’re taking this out for your social security and this much will go into your retirement,” because as a freelance artist, you’re not like a business with all these protected interests that are very much part of reality. We as musicians are never really met with that. If you were in the symphony, yeah, you would get that — a classical musician hired with a symphony, you would have all of that.

Controlling your own publishing, and the royalties from your songs, affords you something of a retirement cushion?

More than anything else. This is something that you learn along the way in our industry — unless this is information you now get in a course at a university, and a lot of places do now require you to take a course in the business of music. But the practical aspect of it, as a performance artist making a name for themselves in the freelance, independent way, you have to protect yourself, and the record companies don’t like that.

I was coming up with all these cute little ways of singing something you knew, like my cute little version of “Summertime,” and people would be like, “Oh she’s singing ‘Summertime,’ I like that version!” [laughs] And I’d spend all this time coming up with versions, and I thought, “Why don’t I spend all this time writing something that comes from me?” So I went in the direction of doing what I thought Billie Holliday was all about — “God Bless the Child”? Nobody else did that before her — and so many others. So I thought, “I’m taking that side of the jazz thing.” I want to do what Mary Lou did. She wrote all of these songs. But the product that I’m selling is not something the public demands. I’m not on the top five of the jazz charts at the moment, and I’m not the top five on the pop charts, so there’s not that demand for my product right now. That could change. I just have to keep going for it, keep working at it.

Is fame and celebrity what you’re seeking?

I think I want recognition for my work, and for my contribution musically and the quality that goes with what I do. I would appreciate the general public being familiar with my work as a performer. But do I want to be big and all that? I like being able to walk the streets and just have a quiet cup of coffee with my friends. But I do feel overlooked sometimes in that I’ve made a huge contribution to extending jazz as an art form in our society in this new millennium; this 15th year of this new millennium, I’m still here, and I’m doing it and I feel great about that.

But if I could make my mark, and be like Billie Holiday, and leave the planet, you guys, with my version of whatever it will be, like my own “God Bless the Child,” like what that means to me, that you get a song from me at the end — and look now how many people are just learning about Mary Lou, and she’s been gone now since 1981. So it’s a commitment to the art, to making a difference in society that moves us forward, that keeps us positive, and feeling feelings that we need to feel deep down inside that nobody else needs to know about, and the music can take care of that. Those are things that — it’s what it does for me, and what all those great people, that’s what they did for me.

Earlier in your career you had a chance to play Billie Holiday on stage. What kind of education was that for you as a vocalist?

That was kind of like the Mary Lou thing I described where I was having to learn her arrangements to teach. When I had to learn Billie Holiday’s music to portray her, that was another cold blooded lesson.

In what way?

The essence of her musicianship was so profound. We remember her voice more from when she was in her later days, as a performer in her 40s, around the time that she passed away. We remember the sound of Billie Holiday from later in her career. But to play her, you’ve got to start at the beginning. So a number of her recordings, her style, the youthfulness, the way she sang, the buoyancy that a lot of her earlier works have. The quality in the sound of her voice. The energy. To portray that side of her, to use those songs. To do what Billie Holiday did, to take a song, completely — “this is mine” — to make an emotional commitment, and stay vulnerable and open in delivering the song, and then slay the audience at the same time. So my biggest challenge was, “How do I do all of that?” And I had to learn a lot of tunes too. And then we had to say lines.

So I chose not to sound like Billie Holiday when I sang the music, but I phrased the way she would phrase the music and tried to find myself conveying Billie Holiday in the way she interpreted the lyric. That’s the art of jazz singing. The true art of it is to convey and embody the spirit of the song with your individual musical ability without taking away from any of the integrity of the piece in what is distinctly your interpretation.

Speaking of which, you’re going back on stage to perform for the second time as Mary Lou next year …

And that is interesting, because it won’t have to do so much with singing Mary Lou, because Mary Lou doesn’t really sing, but to be and talk as this woman is quite a challenge, and I was not off book when I did it before. This time I will be off book, so it will be more characterization, away from turning the page, as I am now the character. So that’s the next thing.

Well, I guess that’s as good a place as any to end, as it seems we’ve come full circle back to Mary Lou.

Back to Mary Lou, [laughs] check that out!


Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angelesbased journalist, author, and filmmaker. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JaniceRhoshalle.

LARB Contributor

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is the 2022 L.A. Press Club SoCal Journalism Awards (Race & Society) finalist for her LMU Magazine article “Crowning Achievement,” highlighting the issues Black people face in the workplace for wearing naturally textured hairstyles. The previous year, Janice was selected as a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation 2021 Summer Writers Nonfiction Fellow. A former columnist for the Associated Press, Janice has been published in more than 60 consumer and trade publications including the Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine, Shondaland, Essence, EMMY, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, where she was a senior editor and director of special projects. In addition to her work in journalism, Janice is an author, editor, screenwriter, and social justice advocate. She is an alumna of Loyola Marymount University and the University of Southern California where she received an MA. She’s currently the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at USC where she is also an adjunct instructor at the Annenberg School’s Specialized Journalism graduate program.


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