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Williams, Mary Lou

Williams, Mary Lou

May 8, 1910
May 28, 1981

Although she never led her own big band, and recorded only occasionally as a leader, the pianist Mary Lou Williams is generally acknowledged as the most significant female instrumentalist in the history of jazz. She composed and arranged works that exemplify the rhythmic drive and harmonic sophistication of the swing era. Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia, she moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her mother in 1914, and she performed professionally on the piano at the age of six. Using the surname of her two stepfathers, she performed as Mary Lou Burley and Mary Lou Winn at private parties in Pittsburgh and in East Liberty, Pennsylvania, before the age of ten.

At age fifteen, while a student at Pittsburgh's Lincoln High School, she played the piano on the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) black vaudeville circuit. Two years later she married John Williams, a baritone saxophonist, and moved with him to Memphis. They next lived in Oklahoma City and then Kansas City, where Mary Lou Williams quickly became a prominent member of the developing swing scene. In 1929, her husband arranged for her to have an audition with the bandleader Andy Kirk. She became a full-time member of Kirk's Clouds of Joy in 1930, and she was the band's star soloist, composer, and arranger. Williams was one of the few well-known instrumentalists of the swing era.

Although Williams's early style as a soloist was influenced by Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, and Fats Waller, by the late 1920s she was a well-known exponent of Kansas City swing, a somewhat lighter style of swing derived from stride influences. As one of her Kirk recordings pointed out in its title, Williams was "The Lady Who Swings the Band" (1936). She was significant as both a composer and arranger, lending harmonic sophistication and a bold sense of swing to Kirk's repertory, including "Mess-a-Stomp" (1929 and 1938), "Walkin' and Swingin' " (1936), "Froggy Bottom" (1936), "Moten Swing" (1936), "In the Groove" (1937), and "Mary's Idea" (1938).

In the mid-1930s the Clouds of Joy moved to New York, where Williams also worked as an arranger for Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman, for whom she arranged the famous 1937 versions of "Roll 'Em," "Camel Hop," and "Whistle Blues." In 1940 she arranged and recorded "Baby Dear" and "Harmony Blues" as Mary Lou Williams and Her Kansas City Seven, an ensemble drawn from the Kirk band. Williams divorced her husband in the late 1930s, and she left Kirk's band in 1942, the same year she married and began performing with the trumpeter Shorty Baker. That marriage also ended in divorce. Throughout the 1940s, Williams continued to work as an arranger, again with Goodman, as well as on "Trumpets No End" (1945), an arrangement of the song "Blue Skies" done for Duke Ellington. She also continued to perform, as a solo act in the mid-to-late 1940s at both the uptown and downtown Cafe Society in New York, and with an all-female group (1945-1946). At Carnegie Hall in 1946 the New York Philharmonic performed three movements of her Zodiac Suite, a version of which she had recorded the year before.

While many giants of the swing era failed to make the transition to bebop, Williams readily assimilated into her playing the developments of Thelonious Monk (19171982) and Bud Powell (19241966), both of whom were regular guests at the informal piano salon she held at her Harlem home throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In 1952 Williams began a two-year tour of England and France. In 1954 she underwent a religious experience while performing at a Paris nightclub and walked off the bandstand in mid-set. Back home in Harlem, Williams, who had been raised a Baptist, joined a Roman Catholic church because she was allowed to pray there at any time of the day or night. She refused to play in public until 1957, when, urged on by Dizzy Gillespie (19171993), she performed at the Newport Jazz Festival. From the late 1950s on, she regularly toured and performed, including a concert with fellow pianists Willie "The Lion" Smith, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Billy Taylor in Pittsburgh in 1965.

In the 1960s Williams, who had become a devout Roman Catholic, composed several large-scale liturgical works (Black Christ of the Andes, 1963; St. Martin de Porres, 1965), culminating in Mary Lou's Mass (1969), which was commissioned by the Vatican and choreographed by Alvin Ailey. In the 1970s she continued to perform and record (Solo Recital, 1977), particularly with the intention of educating listeners about the history of jazz. She also performed with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall (Embraced, 1977), and in that year became an artist in residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she died.

See also Gillespie, Dizzy; Jazz; Monk, Thelonious Sphere


Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Pantheon, 1984.

Dahl, Linda. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams. New York: Pantheon, 1999.

Handy, D. Antoinette. "Conversation with Mary Lou Williams: First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard." The Black Perspective in Music 8 (1980): 194214.

Kernodle, Tammy L. Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.

d. antoinette handy (1996)
Updated bibliography

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