Hip Hop in 30 Seconds Flat!

Sometimes people think that they need to wait until they’ve been taking lessons for years to begin composing and sharing their music with the world. Jordan from Brampton, Ontario proves that’s not the case–here’s a hip hop song he wrote when he was only five years old!

I’d love to see the music he could come up with on a longer time frame. I bet it would be even more awesome!

Mary Lou Williams

History Hunt: Mary Lou Williams

Recently, I heard about a picture book called The Little Piano Girl, all about jazz legend Mary Lou Williams‘ musical childhood. While I’m waiting for the opportunity to pick up the book, I thought it would be a good idea to read up about Williams’ career and make a History Hunt post about her. She may be better-known than many of the artists and composers I’ve featured on this blog, but that doesn’t mean she’s not worthy of a post–especially since her birthday is coming up!

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910. She was surrounded by music from the very start of her life–when she was only a toddler, her mother would keep her on her lap as she practiced the pump organ. And Williams was paying attention! In her own words:

One day, when she was pumping the organ, my fingers beat her to the keyboard and began playing. And it must have been great, because she ran out and got the neighbors to listen to it.

(Source: Mary Lou Williams: A Centennial Celebration)

After that, Williams’ mother taught her spirituals, ragtime, and boogie-woogie. Williams learned so quickly that she was playing professionally by the time she was six or seven and was known as “The Little Piano Girl of East Liberty.”

The Little Piano Girl

The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend, by Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald. Illustrated by Giselle Potter.

After touring throughout her teenaged years, Williams married and joined the same band as her husband. The band was called Twelve Clouds of Joy. At first, her fellow band members didn’t realise what an incredible musician they had: for a year, she was only their substitute pianist. But when their other pianist left, Williams became Twelve Clouds of Joy’s full-time pianist, and it was her performances, arrangements, and compositions that made the band famous.

Even if it took a while for Twelve Clouds of Joy to appreciate Williams’ genius, some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day were lining up at her door to have her write and arrange for them. Her fans included Louis Armstrong (whom she met at age fifteen), Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Thelonius Monk, among others.

Like Mamie Smith and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mary Lou Williams left the United States to tour Europe. She was so successful, she lived there for two years. But then, one day in 1954, Williams walked out in the middle of one of her performances, exhausted both physically and mentally. She went on a hiatus from performing for three years to get her strength back.

In this time, Williams returned to the United States and converted to Roman Catholicism. For a while after that, she didn’t perform much at all. She wasn’t sure how jazz, which still was looked at with suspicion by the church, fit into her faith. Finally, three of her friends–two priests and Dizzy Gillespie–persuaded her to take up music again. After that, she wrote both religious and non-religious music alike. She even wrote jazz masses! One of them, Mary Lou’s Mass, was performed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City–the first time jazz was ever performed in that church.

Not only was Williams a brilliant musician, she was also a compassionate human being. She started the Bel Canto Foundation to help musicians who were trying to leave behind drug addictions return to their careers. She made the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, to help young people learn about jazz, and she set up two thrift stores where the proceeds (and ten percent of her own income) would go to musicians in need.

Later in life, Williams recorded The History of Jazz, for which she played the piano. She became an Artist-In-Residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, taught jazz history, ran the university’s jazz ensemble, gave interviews, appeared on both Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, and, of course, kept performing–including at the White House!

Williams has been honoured in numerous ways in recent times. The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival is held every year in Washington, DC and Duke University now hosts the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. And, of course, there’s The Little Piano Girl!

To hear one of Williams’ compositions, try “My Mama Pinned a Rose On Me,” which you can listen to below:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Mary Lou Williams: A Centennial Celebration at NPR.org
Mary Lou Williams at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture
Mary Lou Williams at PBS.org
Mary Lou Williams at Biography.com
Williams, Mary Lou [née Scruggs, Mary Elfrieda; Burley, Mary Lou] at Oxford Music Online
Mary Lou Williams On Piano Jazz at NPR.org
Mary Lou Williams at All About Jazz
Mary Lou Williams at Muppet Wiki
Mary Lou Williams at Wikipedia.org

3D Printed Violin by Monad Studio

A Violin Straight Out of Science Fiction

As much as the above picture looks like a still from an upcoming science fiction movie, this instrument is fact, not fiction! It’s actually the result of 3D printing, made by MONAD Studio for an installation earlier this month.

The 2-string piezoelectric violin was part of 3D Print Week NY, along with a 3D-printed cello and electric bass. Two more instruments, small and large didgeridoos, were also going to be a part of the collection (but the artists ran out of time to make them!).

When I first saw the picture of the violin, I tried to imagine what it might sound like. Later, I found this video of a duet between the violin and the cello and…well, my imagination wasn’t even close! Did anyone guess right?

To hear the electric guitar being played, check out this article by 3D Print.com.

Mamie Smith

History Hunt: Mamie Smith

I had written down in my History Hunt notes that, this week, I either wanted to feature Mamie Smith or Bessie Smith, who are two incredibly important artists in the history of the blues that are actually no relation to each other! A quick Google showed me that Mamie Smith has only a fraction of the hits that Bessie Smith did, and so, well, that decided that!

Mamie Smith was born Mamie Robinson on May 26, 1883, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about her childhood. We do know that she started performing when she was only ten years old, when she joined a touring dance group called the Four Dancing Mitchells. When she was either nineteen or twenty, she was living in New York and had married her first husband. She’d also started to be known for her singing as well as her dancing.

Smith wasn’t exclusively a blues singer–she also sang pop songs of the day. After World War I, she tried to make records, but ran into serious problems. The two main labels, Columbia and Victor, refused to make a recording sung by a Black woman. They must have regretted their racism later, because when Smith recorded her first hit in 1920, “Crazy Blues,” it sold 10 000 records in the first week and 75 000 in the first month–outstanding numbers for the time!

Smith was the first Black singer to record the blues (with “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down,” which she recorded six months before “Crazy Blues”), and thanks to her incredible success, she made it possible for other Black blues singers–especially women–to make records and achieve great popularity in the years to come.

After her hit, Smith became rich and she and her band, the Jazz Hounds, were well paid for their performances. She went on to make twenty-three more records, toured Europe, and performed in nine variety shows. She also acted in a number of movies in the late 1930s and 1940s, making her a real triple threat!

Nowadays, though Mamie Smith isn’t enjoying nearly the fame she deserves, she hasn’t been completely overlooked. Her recording of “Crazy Love” was added to the American National Recording Registry in 2006. Its goal is to preserve recordings that “are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” There have been only 425 recordings that have been added to the registry since January 27, 2003–that she was included says a lot! I can only hope she continues to be recognised as the incredibly important artist she is in the future.

Listen to one of Smith’s recordings, “Let’s Agree To Disagree,” and watch it being played on a record player below! (Can you find the Bridal Chorus played by the instrumentalists at the end?)

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
Smith, Mamie 1883–1946 at Encyclopedia.com
Mamie Smith and the Birth of the Blues Market at NPR.org
Smith, Mamie (1883-1946) at BlackPast.org
Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography by Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham
National Recording Registry at Wikipedia.org
Image source: Old Hat Records

Anything Can Be An Instrument: Wine Glass Edition

Every since I was a kid, the idea that wine glasses can double as musical instruments has fascinated me. Whenever my family visited my grandparents in Newfoundland, I always wanted my grandparents to bring out the wine glasses so I could play with them, and luckily for me, they’ve always been super-generous when it comes to me and music. (Thanks, Grannie and Granddad!)

It was hard to get exact notes with ordinary wine glasses–mostly I experimented with how the sound changed when I drank (water!) from the glasses. But as it turns out, if I ever wanted to play the glass harp (as it’s called when people play music on multiple wine glasses), my life would be made a whole lot easier by this set of musical wine glasses.

Musical Wine Glass

One musical wine glass. What kind of scale is printed on the outside?

Musical Wine Glasses

Two musical wine glasses! What interval would you get if you played them both together?

Unfortunately, the set is currently sold out. In the meantime, though, why not take a listen to a perhaps familiar song played on the glass harp?

Hildegard of Bingen

History Hunt: Hildegard of Bingen

History Hunting is a fascinating hobby to have, and it’s particularly rewarding when the work of tracking down forgotten composers pays off. This week’s forgotten composer, Hildegard of Bingen, is one of the success stories of the History Hunting community–she was “rediscovered” about thirty-five years ago and has been receiving a lot more attention since. This is also an opportunity for me to be a little self-indulgent, since she’s one of my favourite composers.

Hildegard was born in what’s now called Germany in about 1098. Her parents, Mechtilde and Hildebert, were nobles, and Hildegard was their tenth child! When Hildegard was three years old, she began to have visions that she believed were sent from God (although in modern times it’s speculated she suffered from particularly severe migraines). She told no one about her visions, but kept them a secret.

When she was either seven or eight, her parents sent her to a convent to be raised, and after that, she was cared for by Jutta of Spanheim, the abbess (or leader) of the convent. Jutta educated Hildegard as best she was able, although in that time in Germany, women were not encouraged to educate themselves. Jutta and Hildegard were close–in fact, Jutta was the first person Hildegard told about her visions.

Hildegard became a nun when she was sixteen; when she was thirty-eight, she became the leader of her convent and went on to begin another convent when she was in her sixties.

She was a woman of many talents. In addition to composing two large collections of songs of 77 and 82 songs each, for a total of 159 works–which is the most we know of any composer of her period–Hildegard wrote about theology, medicine, various plants, and, eventually, her visions. She also went on preaching tours toward the end of her life, even though travel in those days was hard enough for the young, let alone a woman in her sixties!

Music was tremendously important to Hildegard, so much so that when she was accused of breaking one of the rules of the church, her punishment was that she and her fellow nuns were forbidden from singing their praises to God. Hildegard wrote an angry letter in response, suggesting terrible consequences in heaven if her punishment wasn’t lifted, and eventually she won her case.

Nowadays, Hildegard’s recognition has been growing. In 2012, she was named a saint by Pope Benedict XVI, and she even has a minor planet named after her, 898 Hildegard!

Below is a music video of “O Virtus Sapientiae” from Hildegard’s collection Ordo virtutum (“Play of the Virtues”), sung in praise of the virtue of Divine Wisdom:

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
A History of Music in Western Culture by Mark Evan Bonds (p. 44)
The Music of Hildegard von Bingen” by Olivia Carter Mather (Note: References to mature content are made in the link.)
Hildegard of Bingen at Music Academy Online
Minor Planet Center.net
Pope formally proclaims sainthood of Hildegard of Bingen at CatholicCulture.org

Battle of the…Keyboards?

Having a Battle of the Bands might seem like a fairly modern thing to do, but actually, musical competitions involving two artists going head-to-head have probably been happening for as long as music has been made. Certainly, records of classical musicians gearing up for battle exist going centuries back–Beethoven was known for being a particularly deadly opponent.

One of the funnier musical contests took place in 1717 between J. S. Bach and Louis Marchand–or at least, it was supposed to take place. As reported by Classic FM (note: minor language in link):

The day of the contest dawned and a crowd began to form, with the Royal family and the aristocracy of Dresden all in attendance at Count Flemming’s grand palace. Bach arrived in good time and the contest was ready to begin… just as soon as his opponent appeared. After a long wait, Count Flemming sent a messenger to remind Marchand. Surely he could not have forgotten such an important engagement? When the messenger returned, the assembled company was astonished to discover that the Frenchman had fled.

Realising that he was in for a humiliating defeat, Marchand had left by stagecoach at first light and was now well on the road back to Paris. Worse still, an unscrupulous servant had pocketed the prize money.


At the very least, Bach got to give a great solo concert, so it wasn’t a waste of everyone’s time. Lucky for him–not so lucky for Marchand!