Mary Lou Williams: The Scarlet Creeper


The Scarlet Creeper



Nite Life (Chiaroscuro CRD 103)

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Mary Lou Williams (piano).

Composed by Mary Lou Williams


Recorded: New York, May-June 1971


Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

"The Scarlet Creeper" was originally released on 1971's From the Heart, Mary Lou Williams's first solo piano recordings since the 1940s. Her close friend and personal manager, the Jesuit priest Peter F. O'Brien, came up with the tune's title, derived from an unsavory character in Carl Van Vechten's controversial 1926 novel Nigger Heaven (the term used for movie-theater balconies that African Americans were forced to sit in during the years of segregation in the South). Williams's performance of this complex piece showed just how far she had come stylistically from her early years as a stride pianist, composer and arranger for Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy, as influences such as bebop and even modal jazz are evident. Her original, modern harmonic concept, and majestic, deeply resonant sound became a potent combination.

Father O'Brien believed that Williams never again performed "The Scarlet Creeper," and a very tentative, relatively unsuccessful alternate take included on Nite Life perhaps explains why: this was a challenging composition that she conquered once and for all, and chose not to pursue any further. A rumbling prologue remains mostly in the lower register until ringing flurries and a compressed riff lead to an insistent left-hand motif that forms the central theme of the improvisation. Williams's attack intensifies as her runs quicken and are intertwined with percussive clusters of notes. The "creeping" motif reappears, in addition to a concentration of right-hand tremolos, before the motif takes over completely, with subtle variations, prior to a sudden two-note signoff.

When Williams arranged an ultimately disappointing concert of duets in 1977 with avant-gardist Cecil Taylor (recorded and released as Embraced), some were shocked, others just puzzled. One listen to "The Scarlet Creeper," and her motivation begins to make perfect sense.

Reviewer: Scott Albin

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  • 1 Marissa Dodge // Sep 05, 2008 at 05:54 AM
    I enjoyed reading this well-researched,interesting, and nicely penned review, Scott. I even learned a couple of things. Thanks for the inspiration.