Williams, Mary Lou 1910–1981

views updated May 23 2018

Mary Lou Williams 19101981

Jazz pianist, composer, and arranger

Became a Cloud of Joy

Joined Ellington

Focused on Liturgical Compositions

Selected discography

With Andy Kirk:


Image not available for copyright reasons

To describe Mary Lou Williams as merely the most influential woman in the history of jazz does not do her justice. Over the course of her more than 50 years in music, Williams did far more than simply break down the gender barriers that kept women out of the elite ranks of jazz instrumentalists for so long. She was among the handful of musicians whose creative input helped to determine the direction of jazz over much of the twentieth century. In some ways, Williamss career mirrors the evolution of jazz itself. From her early infatuation with boogie-woogie piano, the First Lady of Jazz went on to help steer the transitions from big band swing to bebop, and she later even dabbled in avant-garde. When she died in 1981, Williams left behind a musical legacy that few people of any gender or race can match.

Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, one of eight children. At the tender age of two-and-a-half, Mary was able to pick out ragtime and spiritual melodies on the organ from her mothers lap. When she was four, her mother moved the family to Pittsburgh. Although she did not study piano formally, her musical gift was nurtured by her mother, stepfather Fletcher Burley, and other relatives, all of whom saw to it that she was exposed to a rich variety of music that included the classics as well as jazz. From player piano rolls, she copied the techniques of early jazz artists like Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. By the time she was 12, Williamsthen known as Mary Lou Burleywas ready to launch her professional career as a substitute pianist for the Buzz and Harris Revue, a touring show that happened to be passing through Pittsburgh.

Became a Cloud of Joy

Burley continued to tour with various traveling shows throughout her high school years. In the Seymour and Jeanette Show, she met a saxophone player named John Williams, whom she married in 1926. After a brief stay in Memphis, where Mary Lou Williams made her first recordings as part of a group called the Synco Jazzers, both Williamses moved in 1929 to Oklahoma, where John had earned a spot in a band called Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy. At first, Mary Lou would fill in occasionally on piano and perform other tasks for the band. Within a couple of years, however-during which time the band moved its base to Kansas City-she became not only its full-time pianist, but also its chief musical arranger.

At a Glance

Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Ga; died May 28, 1981, in Durham, NC; daughter of Virginia Burley (an organist and domestic worker) Winn; married John (a jazz saxophonist) Williams, 1926 (divorced 1940); married Harold Shorty (a jazz trumpeter) Baker, 1942 (divorced 1944).Religion: Formerly Baptist; converted to Catholicism, 1957.

Began playing piano professionally at age 12; pianist, The Hottentots, Pittsburgh, mid-1920s; Seymnour and Jeanette, vaudeville troup, 1926; Terrence Holder Band, 1930; pianist, arranger, and composer, Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy, 1931-42; staff arranger, Duke Ellington Orchestra, 1942-44; bandleader and composer with own groups, 1942-80; founded Bel Canto Foundation, 1957; artist in residence, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1975-77; Duke University, 1977-81.

Awards: Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972 and 1977; Trinity Award, Duke University, 1981; honorary doctorates from numerous universities, including Boston University, Fordham, and Loyola;Down Beat Hall of Fame, 1990.

The brilliance of Williamss arrangements quickly caught the ears of some of the biggest jazz bandleaders of the day. Over the next several years, she wrote arrangements for Duke Ellington, Earl Fatha Hines, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and others. Among her better-known arrangements of this period were Camel Hop and Roll Em for Goodman and Whats Your Story Morning Glory for Jimmie Lunceford. Throughout the 1930s, she was one of the leading personalities in the thriving Kansas City jazz scene. By around 1940, however, both her marriage and her involvement with the Kirk band had become less than satisfying. Williams got a divorce, and, in 1942, she left the Clouds of Joy and moved to New York City. There she started a combo with her second husband, trumpet player Harold Shorty Baker.

Joined Ellington

When Baker joined the Duke Ellington band in the early 1940s, Williams was asked to come on board as staff arranger. Her 1943 arrangement of Blue Skies (Trumpet No End) for the Ellington orchestra became a classic. Williamss marriage to Baker lasted only about one year. After the breakup, Williams carried on as a fixture on the New York jazz club scene, forging friendships and jamming regularly with many of the top names in the emerging bebop movement, such as Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. During the mid-1940s, she made a number of small-label records with the likes of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins.

In 1945, Williams composed the Zodiac Suite, a 12-movement work based on an astrological theme. After initially introducing the piece on her new radio show, the Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop, she performed it later that year with an 18-piece orchestra at New Yorks Town Hall. The following year, the New York Philharmonic premiered a three-movement orchestral version of the work. Around that time, Williams also recorded occasionally with an all-girl group on the RCA label.

Toward the end of the 1940s, Williamss excitement about jazz in the United States began to wane, and her performances became less frequent. She moved to Europe in 1952, where she enjoyed a reasonable amount of success. Her enthusiasm for music continued to shrink, though, and gradually she became disgusted with the jazz business. In 1954, Williams stormed off the stage in the middle of a big Paris concert, and began a three-year self-imposed exile from music. Her withdrawal from the piano coincided with a spiritual transformation. Revolted by the greed and envy rampant in the music world, she sought solace in religion. Returning to the United States, Williams devoted her energies to prayer and charity work. In 1957, she converted to Catholicism, and shortly thereafter, founded the Bel Canto Foundation, an organization whose primary mission was to assist musicians with drug, alcohol, or medical problems.

Focused on Liturgical Compositions

Convinced by her spiritual advisors that music was her true calling and her best means of helping people, Williams returned to the stage in 1957, performing with Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival. Soon she was an active member of the jazz scene once again, performing at clubs throughout the 1960s. She also formed her own record company, Mary Records. Religion remained a central force in her life, as was reflected in her composition of several masses and other liturgical pieces over the next several years. Her first major religious piece was a contata honoring St. Martin de Porres, Black Christ of the Andes, composed in 1962. The third of her three masses, Mary Lous Mass, is probably her most famous religious composition. It was commissioned by the Vatican in 1969 and later adapted into a ballet by Alvin Ailey in 1971. On the secular side, Williamss 1970 solo piano/lecture recording The History of Jazz was a landmark work of combined scholarly and musical virtuosity.

During the 1970s, Williams embarked on a self-assigned mission to save jazz from the perverting forces of modernism and rock and roll. She toured throughout the U.S. and Europe as both a solo artist and with a trio. In 1977 she performed a dual piano concert at Carnegie Hall with avant-garde giant Cecil Taylor, a puzzling and delightful departure from her stated opposition to most of the developments in jazz since the bebop era. The concert was recorded and released as an album under the title Embraced. During the second half of the decade, she devoted a considerable amount of time to teaching, first at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst from 1975 to 1977, then at Duke University, where she served as artist-in-residence beginning in 1977. Along the way she performed at numerous international jazz festivals, on television, and at the White House.

Williamss final recording was, Solo Recital: Montreux Jazz Festival, 1978. The following year, at the age of 69, Williams was diagnosed with cancer. Her condition worsened over the next two years, and she performed infrequently, although she continued to teach at Duke. She died in 1981. When Williams was elected into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame in 1990, she became the first woman instrumentalist to be so honored.

Selected discography

From the Heart, Chiaroscuro, 1971.

The History of Jazz, Folkways, 1970.

Mary Lou Williams: A Keyboard History, Jazztone, 1955.

Zoning, Smithsonian/Folkways, 1974.

(With Cecil Taylor)Embraced, Pablo, 1977.

My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me, Pablo, 1977.

Solo Recital: Montreux Jazz Festival, Pablo, 1978.

Zodiac Suite, Folkways, 1945.

(With Brian Torff)Live at the Cookery (recorded 1975), reisued, Chiascuro, 1990.

Mary Lou Williams 1927-1940, Classics.

Key Moments, Topaz Jazz, 1995.

The Best of Mary Lou Williams, Pablo.

In London, GNP Crescendo.

(With Don Byas)Mary Lou Williams & Don Byas, GNP Crescendo.

With Andy Kirk:

Andy Kirk and His Could of Joy: Walkin and Swin gin, Affinity, 1936-41.

Instrumentally Speaking.

Souvenir Album.

Clouds of Joy.

Twelve Clouds of Joy.

Marys Idea.

Selected compositions

Mass for Lenten Season, 1968.

Mary Lous Mass (Music for Peace), 1969.



Gilbert, Lynn and Moore, Gaylen, Particular Passions, Clarkson N. Potter, 1981, pp. 79-89.

Kufrin, Joan, Uncommon Women, New Century, 1981, pp. 155-173.

Lyons, Len and Perlo, Don, Jazz Portraits, Morrow, 1989, pp. 532-534.


Down Beat, September 1990, p. 21.

Ebony, October 1979, pp. 56-64.

Music Journal, September 1974, pp. 50-51.

New York Times, May 30, 1981, p. 21.

People Weekly, May 12, 1981, pp. 73-77.

Robert R.Jacobson

Mary Lou Williams

views updated May 21 2018

Mary Lou Williams

Pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) is often referred to as the First Lady of Jazz in the annals of American music history. Williams was a highly respected musician in her day whose repertoire spanned several seminal jazz styles, from boogie-woogie to bebop, and she was an integral member of what became known as the Kansas City big-band sound during the 1930s. In her later years she wrote jazz-inflected liturgical works for Roman Catholic masses and taught at Duke University. Williams, remarked Denver Post writer Glenn Giffin, "was the first, for a long time the only, and many claim the most significant, woman in jazz between the era of the '20s and her death in 1981."

Learned at Mother's Knee

Williams was born on May 10, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia, as Mary Elfreda Winn. She did not meet her biological father until she was in her twenties, and her early years were rough. Her mother was a drinker and took in laundry to support Williams and an older sister. Her mother also liked to play the reed organ and kept the infant Williams on her lap when she practiced. According to an unpublished biography, Williams recalled that one day, she reportedly reached out and picked out the notes her mother had just played. "I must have frightened her so that she dropped me then and there, and I started to cry," she recalled, according to an article in World and I by David Conrads. "It must have really shaken my mother. She actually dropped me and ran out to get the neighbors to listen to me."

Soon Williams was playing by ear the African American slave spirituals and ragtime that her mother knew, and her mother "wouldn't consent to my having music lessons, for she feared I might end up as she had done—unable to play except from paper," Williams later recalled in a 1954 Melody Maker interview. Around 1914 or 1915, the family moved to Pittsburgh, which offered a thriving musical environment in its African American community. Around the East Liberty neighborhood where they lived, Williams soon emerged as a child musical prodigy, with perfect pitch and a remarkable musical memory. Her new stepfather, Fletcher Burley, bought a player piano for the home, and here Williams first learned the works of Jelly Roll Morton and other early jazz pioneers. "As a stepfather he was the greatest," Williams later said of Burley in the Melody Maker interview, "and he loved the blues. Fletcher taught me the first blues I ever knew by singing them over and over to me." Burley also smuggled the young Williams into the bars where he liked to gamble, and she sometimes earned $20 in tips by playing the piano there.

Started in Black Vaudeville

Williams was soon known around all of Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl" and once even played for a party at the home of the city's leading family, the Mellons. She made her formal debut with a band in 1922 at the age of 12, when an African American vaudeville review came to town and one of its musicians fell ill. Managers learned of William's prowess, and impresario "Buzzin" Harris visited the home—Williams recalls that she was playing hopscotch outside that day—and convinced her parents to let her tour with them. Her mother found a friend to go along to chaperone her, and Williams earned a lucrative $30 a week for gigs that took her to Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, and as far west as St. Louis.

Williams left Pittsburgh's Westinghouse High School in 1926 at the age of 16 and joined the Seymour and Jeanette Show, another popular black vaudeville act. That same year she married its bandleader, John Williams, who was also a talented saxophone player. She made her first recordings accompanying him on the piano as part of the "John Williams Synco Jazzers" for the Paramount, Gennett, and Champion labels. A woman playing with a jazz act was a relative rarity at the time and word of Williams's talents soon spread to New York City. On tour stops there, she met and played for such greats as Morton and Fats Waller and once even sat in with Duke Ellington's Washingtonians at the Lincoln Theater for a week-long engagement.

The Kansas City Sound

For a time in the late 1920s Williams lived in Memphis, her husband's home town, but soon followed him out to Oklahoma City when he was offered a new gig. That band became Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy, and Williams soon joined it herself as its second pianist. Taking the act and settling in Kansas City, Kirk pioneered the new blues-based style of jazz that became synonymous with the booming and somewhat lawless Plains town, rich from newly discovered oil in the region. It was a lively scene, even when Prohibition was still in force. "Kansas City in the Thirties was jumping harder than ever," Williams recalled in the Melody Maker interview. "The 'Heart of America' was at that time one of the nerve centres of jazz, and I could write about it for a month and never do justice to the half of it… . Of course, we didn't have any closing hours in these spots. We could play all morning and half through the day if we wished to, and in fact we often did. The music was so good that I seldom got to bed before midday."

It was Kirk who helped Williams with some of her first forays into formal musical notation when she began arranging songs for his band. She quickly grew tired of having Kirk transcribe what she wanted and began to learn to notate herself. In Kansas City, Kirk's Twelve Clouds enjoyed tremendous success, fueled in part by Williams's arrangements and her compelling piano solos. She was also somewhat of a novelty, she admitted in a 1979 interview with Books & Arts writer Catherine O'Neill, for there were few women in jazz in the day except for vocalists. "In St. Louis once, I was sitting on the stand waiting for the band to come in, and I heard someone say, 'Get that little girl off the stage so the band can start up.' But I just stayed there, and when the band came in and I started playing, the house went into an uproar, cheering and laughing."

Gained Fame as Arranger

Williams cut her first solo record in Chicago in 1930, with two of her own compositions, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life." She was never paid for them, however, and later had to threaten a lawsuit to have them taken off the market. For the rest of the decade she attained widespread recognition and was in great demand as both a pianist and an arranger. She arranged songs for Ellington, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Louis Armstrong, Tommie Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Cab Calloway, among others. Her best-known works remain "Camel Hop" and "Roll 'Em" for Goodman and "What's Your Story Morning Glory," a song that helped make her longtime friend Jimmie Lunceford's band a success.

Williams divorced her husband in 1940 and remained with the Kirk band until 1942. By then, a new style of jazz called bebop was emerging in New York City, and Williams headed there. She came to know its principals—Charlie "Bird" Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk—and many liked to gather in her Harlem apartment for impromptu sessions. Drummer Art Blakey encouraged her to form her own combo, which she did with the man who would become her second husband, trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker. It was a short-lived union, however, and the combo was as well. She signed on with Ellington's band as its arranger, and the highlight of this period of her career was her arrangement of "Blue Skies (Trumpet No End)," a classic Ellington song from 1946.

Dropped Out for a Time

In 1943, Williams began a regular engagement at the Café Society in Greenwich Village, New York City's first racially integrated jazz club. The nightspot was such a success that a second venue soon opened uptown, and Williams played there after 1948, to crowds that often included prominent artists, writers, and film stars of the day. In 1946 her first large-scale composition, Zodiac Suite, made its debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Each of its parts delivers a jazzy piano interpretation of the 12 signs of the zodiac, with " 'Leo' a growling march," noted Down Beat critic Jim Macnie of its recorded version some years later, while "the seesaw agitation of 'Gemini' comes neatly balanced." Macnie asserted that "it's hard to imagine Williams' intricate miniatures not raising the eyebrows of all who heard them at the time. Almost instantly memorable, their clever construction beguiled listeners by revamping the functions of theme and variation."

Around this time Williams began hosting her own radio show, the Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop, but she was beginning to weary of the musician's lifestyle. She moved to Europe in the early 1950s, where she enjoyed regular work as a jazz pianist at London and Paris nightclubs, but one day in 1954 walked off a Paris stage and went back to New York. She announced her official retirement from performing and delved into charity work in Harlem. She also underwent a religious awakening and converted from her Southern Baptist roots to Roman Catholicism. In 1957, she established the Bel Canto Foundation to help New York-area musicians with substance abuse problems, and she personally ran the thrift shop that funded it.

Wrote Jazz Mass

Encouraged by others, Williams returned to stage in 1957 with Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival. She founded a trio, as well as her own record company—the first established by a woman—called Mary Records, but she also began writing liturgical music. Her 1962 cantata, "Black Christ of the Andes," honored Saint Martin de Porres, the first African-heritage saint in the Roman Catholic Church who had been canonized by Pope John XXIII that same year. Williams's most famous work from this era, however, remains Music for Peace, commissioned by the Vatican in 1969 and sometimes referred to as "Mary Lou's Mass." It was adapted for ballet and staged by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1971, and a performance of it was given at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan in 1975, which made history as the first jazz Mass ever held there.

Williams made an important recording in 1970 titled The History of Jazz. A solo piano performance and lecture, Williams gave a first-person account of her years in jazz and demonstrated its changing rhythms and styles on the keyboard. She became a purist about jazz in her later years, voicing a strong dislike for modernist and rock influences on the form. She did, however, perform with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor in 1977 at Carnegie Hall. That same year she took a post as artist-in-residence at Duke University in North Carolina, where she taught a new generation of jazz and piano students. It was also the first regular paycheck of her life. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1979 and gave her last performance in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1980. Later that year she was also involved in a performance of one of her masses at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina, though she was by then debilitated from radiation treatments. She died just a few weeks after her 71st birthday on May 28, 1981, in Durham, North Carolina. She was inducted into Down Beat magazine's Hall of Fame in 1990 as the first female instrumentalist ever to earn that honor. A "Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz" festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. has been held annually since 1996.


Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 15, Gale, 1997.

Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.

Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1: 1981-1985, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.


Books and Arts, December 7, 1979.

Denver Post, September 8, 2000.

Down Beat, April 1996.

Melody Maker, April-June 1954.

World and I, June 2000.

Washington Post, March 26, 1999. □

Williams, Mary Lou

views updated May 18 2018

Mary Lou Williams

Pianist, arranger, composer

Mary Lou Williams's more than 60-year career as an arranger, composer, and jazz pianist was remarkable, not just because it began when she was a small child, but because it spanned a vast array of musical movements and styles. When she debuted, she played with swing musicians three times her age. In the 1950s and 1960s she aided the careers of many of the young bebop artists who had come up after her. Toward the end of her life she shared affinities—and stages—with some of the most prominent avant-garde musicians of the time.

Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia, although she often used two different stepfathers' surnames, Burley and Winn. Her family moved to Pittsburgh when she was a young girl, and it was there that she first demonstrated her innate talent on the piano, which she had taught herself by ear. She began playing at rent parties—raucous events designed to raise funds to meet the host's housing costs—for one dollar an hour when she was only six years old, and started gigging with Pittsburgh's union bands by the age of 12. In a conversation with D. Antoinette Handy that was posted on the website of New York's Kennedy Center, Williams recalled playing for the Mellons, a wealthy Pittsburgh banking family. "They'd send a chauffeur out for me and I'd play their private parties," she recounted. "Once they gave me $100. My mother almost fainted. She wanted to know if the lady drank. She even called the people to see if they had made a mistake."

Her mother encouraged her musical talent, although lessons were strictly forbidden, Williams told Handy. "[I had] no formal instruction. My mother wouldn't allow a teacher near me. She played by ear, then went to a teacher and ended up not playing at all, just reading music. But my mother kept me in a musical environment. Professional musicians were always coming to the house," she recalled.

When Williams was 13, a traveling Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) vaudeville show called Hits and Bits came to town. When their pianist failed to show, Williams was recommended to the producer, "Buzzin'" Harris. When he met her playing hopscotch at her school, Harris thought he had been tricked, but hired Williams once he heard her play. He then recruited her to join the Hits and Bits band on tour. Williams's mother agreed to let her travel with the band for two months, along with a friend, during her summer vacation. The job earned Williams $30 dollars a week. Williams met her future husband, saxophonist and clarinetist John Williams, at a performance in Cleveland where he was leading his group, the Syncopators.

Williams returned to Pittsburgh and Westinghouse Junior High, which had turned out a wealth of jazz greats including Billy Strayhorn and Erroll Garner. At night she sat in with various local bands. She resumed touring after her stepfather became ill, contacting John Williams and arranging to join his band on the TOBA and Gus Sun circuits. The TOBA circuit proved difficult (musicians nicknamed it "Tough on Black Artists"), but the Syncopators' outlook improved when they were invited to tour with the dance team Seymour and Jeanette. When Seymour died, Williams followed Jeanette to New York, working as her accompanist alongside members of Duke Ellingon's band, the Washingtonians. Williams continued to play various venues in New York until 1927, when she married John Williams and moved with him to Memphis, Tennessee.

John assembled a band in Memphis, which included Mary Lou on piano. In 1929 John accepted an invitation to join Andy Kirk's outfit in Oklahoma City, leaving 17-year-old Mary Lou to head the Memphis band for its remaining tour dates. Williams eventually joined her husband in Oklahoma City but did not play with the band. The group, now known as Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Williams spent her free time transporting bodies for an undertaker. When the Clouds of Joy accepted a longstanding engagement in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams joined her husband there and began sitting in with the band, as well as serving as its arranger and composer.

During the winter of 1930-31 Williams traveled to Chicago to cut her first solo record, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life," for the Brunswick label. Previously known only as Mary, Williams took the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of Brunswick's Jack Kapp. The record sold briskly, catapulting Williams to national fame, although she received no royalties from its sales. Soon after the recording session she signed on as Kirk's permanent second pianist, playing solo gigs and working as a freelance arranger for such noteworthy names as Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. By the late 1930s she had come to expect that she would not be paid fairly, if at all, for many of her arrangements. "I had begun to think my arrangements were not worth much, as no one ever wanted to pay for them, and Andy, I knew, could not afford a proper arranger's fee," she recalled in a career history she wrote for Melody Maker in 1954. "But the work paid off in the long run. Whenever musicinas listened to the band they would ask who made a certain arrangement. Nearly always it was one of mine." She had also begun to tire of the hectic touring schedule and nightly routine. "Sometimes I sat on the stand working crossword puzzles, only playing with my left hand," she wrote in Melody Maker. "Every place we played had to turn people away, and my fans must have been disappointed with my conduct. If they were, I wasn't bothering at the time."

Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the band in 1942, returning again to Pittsburgh. She was joined there by bandmate Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she formed a six-piece ensemble that included Art Blakey on drums. After a lengthy engagement in Cleveland, Baker left to join Duke Ellington's orchestra. Williams joined the band in New York, and then traveled to Baltimore, where she and Baker were married. She traveled with Ellington and arranged several tunes for him, including "Trumpet No End," her version of "Blue Skies," but within a year had left Baker and the group and returned to New York.

Williams accepted a regular gig at the Café Society Downtown, started a weekly radio show called "Mary Lou Williams's Piano Workshop" on WNEW, and began mentoring and collaborating with many younger bebop musicians, most notably Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. "During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later," Williams recalled in Melody Maker. Although closely aligned with the bop musicians during her time in New York, Williams also staged a large-scale orchestral rendition of her composition "Zodiac Suite" at Town Hall in 1946 and another with the New York Philharmonic.

For the Record …

Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 9, 1910, in Atlanta, GA; died on May 28, 1981, in Durham, NC; married John Williams (divorced); married Harold "Shorty" Baker.

Began playing on vaudeville circuit as a teenager; debuted with John Williams's Synco Jazzers in Memphis, TN, at age 16; wrote arrangements for Andy Kirk's orchestra beginning in 1929 and eventually joined the band; co-led combo with Harold "Shorty" Baker, early 1940s; served as staff arranger for Duke Ellington, mid-1940s; co-founded Pittsburgh Jazz Festval, 1964; bandleader, various ensembles, 1960s and 1970s; joined faculty of Duke University, 1977.

In 1952 Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years. When she returned to the United States she took a hiatus from performing, dedicating herself to the Catholic faith. She reemerged as a guest with Gillespie's orchestra at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, after which she continued to explore the genre's newer, modal sounds. She set up a charitable organization and opened thrift stores in Harlem, directing the proceeds, along with ten percent of her own earnings, to musicians in need. In 1964 she co-founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Williams composed several sacred works, although she also began to play in a more progressive style that shared an affinity with the avant-garde musicians of the time, including Cecil Taylor, whom she joined in a 1977 duo performance. That same year she accepted a teaching position at Duke University. After her death in 1981, the university established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. Williams's vast contributions to jazz music were summed up eloquently by Duke Ellington, as posted on the Kennedy Center's website: "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary," he once said. "Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead and throughout her career ... her music retains—and maintains—a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul."

Selected discography

Roll 'Em, Audiophile, 1944.

Zodiac Suite: The Town Hall Concert of December 31, 1945 (live), Vintage Jazz Classic, 1945.

Zodiac Suite, Smithsonian Folkways, 1945.

Jazz Variations, Stinson, 1950.

Piano Moderns, Prestige, 1950.

Mary Lou Williams Trio, Atlantic, 1951.

With Barbara Carroll, Atlantic, 1951.

Piano Contempo, Circle, 1952.

In London, GNP, 1953.

Mary Lou Williams Quartet, GNP, 1953.

Piano, Contemporary, 1953.

The First Lady of the Piano, Inner City, 1953.

Mary Lou, EmArcy, 1954.

Piano Moderns, Prestige, 1954.

Messin' 'Round in Montmarte, Storyville, 1959.

Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes, MPS, 1963.

From the Heart, Chiaroscuro, 1970.

Mary Lou's Mass, Mary 1970.

The History of Jazz, Smithsonian Folkways, 1970.

Zoning, Smithsonian Folkways, 1974.

Live at the Cookery, Chiaroscuro, 1975.

My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me, Pablo, 1977.

Mary Lou Williams Solo Recital, Pablo, 1978.

Solo Recital, Montreaux Jazz Festival 1978 (live), Pablo, 1978.

Conversation, Past Perfect, 2002.

Live at the Keystone Korner, High Note, 2002.



Melody Maker, April-June, 1954.


"Mary Lou Williams," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (August 28, 2004).

"Mary Lou Williams," Grove Dictionary of Music,http://www.grovemusic.com (August 28, 2004).

"Mary Lou Williams," Jazz Greats Digital Exhibits, http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/ijs (August 28, 2004).

"Mary Lou Williams: First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard," Kennedy Center Website, http://www.kennedy-center.org (August 28, 2004).

—Kristin Palm

Williams, Mary Lou

views updated May 23 2018

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)
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Mary Lou Williams

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