Williams, Mary Lou (1910–1981)

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Williams, Mary Lou (1910–1981)

African-American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer who absorbed and influenced the changing style of jazz—from boogie-woogie to Kansas City swing, bebop, symphonic and avant-garde—through six decades . Name variations: Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; Mary Elfrieda Winn; Mary Burleigh (or Burley). Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia; died of cancer on May 28, 1981, in Durham, North Carolina; daughter of Joe Scruggs and Virginia Burley Winn; attended public grade school and Lincoln High School in Pittsburgh; married John Williams (a bandleader), in 1927 (divorced 1942); married Harold "Shorty" Baker (a trumpet player), in 1942 (marriage ended c. 1944); no children.

Began playing piano professionally at age six; toured, age 17, with John Williams' Synco Jazzers, and married the bandleader (1927); toured with John Williams when he joined Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy (1928); made first solo recording, "Night Life" (1930); hired as pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk's group (1931); received commissions for arrangements from other bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Tommy Dorsey (1930s); divorced John Williams and married trumpet player Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she led a six-piece band (1942); composed her first extended work, The Zodiac Suite, performed at Town Hall in New York (1945); a portion of the suite performed at Carnegie Hall by New York Philharmonic (1946); appeared with an all-woman trio at Carnegie Hall (1947); had several long engagements at Cafe Society (1950s); after two years of living in England and France, quit music to devote herself to the study of religion and helping the poor (1954); joined the Catholic Church (1956); returned to music, appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie (1957); founded her own record label, Mary Records (1963); commissioned by the Vatican, she wrote Mary Lou's Mass, premiered at Columbia University (1970); rewrote the mass for Alvin Ailey's City Center Dance Theater (1971); played at Jimmy Carter's White House Jazz Party (1978); became artist-in-residence at Duke University (1976); taught and arranged music up to a short time before her death (1981); was the first woman instrumentalist inducted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame (1990).

Selected discography:

Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy (MCA 1343); The Asch Recordings, 1944–47 (Folkways 2966); Zodiac Suite (1946, Folkways 32844); Mary Lou's Mass (1970–72, Mary 102); Zoning (Mary 103); with Cecil Taylor: Embraced (1977, Pablo Live 2620–108); My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me (1977, Pablo 2310–819); Solo Recital—Montreux Jazz Festival '78 (Pablo Live 2308–218).

When asked how she started her lifelong musical journey, Mary Lou Williams frequently related her earliest memory. She would be sitting on her mother's lap at the organ or piano, awed by the spirituals and ragtime her mother played. "One day," her mother would say (so often that it became a part of the daily ritual), "your hands are going to beat me to these keys." And one day, said Williams, they did. She was two and a half when her thrilled and astonished mother summoned the neighbors to witness her child actually playing the piano.

Williams also credited a deathly fear of lightning storms as the catalyst for her earliest musical expression. She described herself as a nervous child who needed a creative outlet to help her survive her fears. For an African-American growing up in rural Georgia in the early 1900s, there were plenty of dangers besides lightning to arouse fears. Lynchings, for instance, were still common. Williams witnessed lynchings at an early age and remembered them to her grave. Meanwhile, except for one relatively short period in which she relied on religion alone, music provided her with emotional and spiritual sustenance throughout her life. Eventually the inspiration of music and religion would be merged in the sacred jazz masses she composed.

Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was born on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia. Her father's name was Joe Scruggs, but she never met him, and her early years were spent in a long wooden house in rural Georgia with her older sister Mamie and their mother Virginia Burley Winn , a church organist. By age three, Mary Lou had learned a ragtime piece her mother played; by the time she was four, word of her talent was out, and she began to perform for the local public. Her mother did not put much trust in formal training, believing that piano teachers had hampered her own ability to play by ear. Rather than arranging for lessons, Virginia began a routine of inviting professional musicians to the house, to play and to listen to Mary. Some of these frequent guests, particularly the great Atlanta boogie-woogie player Jack Howard, proved a tremendous influence.

By the time Williams was six, her mother had remarried twice, and the family had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There was an immediate affinity between the young pianist and her music-loving second stepfather Fletcher Burley (or Burleigh). For the exorbitant price of $1,000, Burley bought a player piano, which enabled Williams to learn from piano rolls made by groundbreaking musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and James P. Johnson, the father of stride piano. While other children were playing outside, Mary Lou was playing the piano up to ten hours a day. She was also learning by listening. In an oral history recorded for Melody Maker in 1954, Williams recalled a Saturday afternoon that influenced her later life, when she watched the pianist Lovie Austin leading the pit band in a local theater, "writing music with her right hand while accompanying the show with her swinging left." Williams often cited this image of the dynamic and multi-talented Austin as an inspiration for her own career as a musician-arranger-composer.

Sometimes Burley took his stepdaughter with him to gambling houses, where she would play the piano for tips. By the age of seven, she was often the family's chief wage earner (she had many stepsiblings). By age 12, she had gone "pro" and was performing at dances, silent movie houses, and whorehouses throughout Pittsburgh. Wealthy families like the Mellons would send their chauffeurs to pick her up to play for their private parties. Everyone wanted to hear the "gigging piano gal from East Liberty."

In the early years of the century, African-American entertainers often got their music gigs through the Theater Owners' Booking Association or TOBA—commonly referred to by some performers as "Tough on Black Asses." Traveling on the TOBA route was often grueling, but as Daphne Duval Harrison points out, the circuit also provided "black entertainment professionals with the opportunity to appear on a regular basis." Many of the shows Williams saw as a young girl in Pittsburgh were put on by professionals on the TOBA circuit. When she was 12 years old, an act called Hits and Bits arrived in town, minus its piano player, and when the manager, "Buzzin'" Harris, began to ask around, he was told that someone called "the little piano girl" could learn the part quickly. Dubious but desperate, Harris hired Williams to play while the show was in town, and was so impressed that he persuaded her mother to allow Mary Lou to travel on the circuit, performing the show one summer. Touring in cities all over the Midwest, Williams got invaluable performing experience and exposure to top musicians, hearing Earl Hines (whom she had admired in Pittsburgh), Louis Armstrong in Chicago, and trumpet player Charlie Creath in St. Louis. On this tour she also met her future husband, baritone saxophone player and bandleader John Williams.

Mary Lou Williams">

Jazz is whatever you are—playing yourself, being yourself, letting your thoughts come through.

—Mary Lou Williams

When Hits and Bits returned to Pittsburgh, Mary Lou went back to being a student. Then, just as she was nearing graduation, her stepfather fell ill, and young Williams needed to find work to help support her family. She contacted Harris, who placed her back on the TOBA circuit, playing with John Williams' Synco Jazzers. This tour proved harder than the last, and the young musicians were on the verge of destitution when they were saved by a last-minute offer to back a dance team, Jeanette and Seymour, on the Keith vaudeville circuit. Mary Lou, then calling herself Mary Burley, married John Williams that year, 1927.

The job with the dance team ended when Seymour died. The young marrieds were compelled to play in various bands, often in different towns. John Williams joined an Oklahomabased group whose members had just voted to replace their leader with Andy Kirk, a talented and popular tuba player. The group moved to Kansas City, where Williams joined them in 1928, as driver, seamstress, water hauler, manicurist, and occasional substitute piano player. It was three years later, after Williams had been discovered by Jack Knapp of the Brunswick label and had recorded two solos, "Night Life" and "Drag 'Em," when she was finally hired as pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy.

In the 1930s, Kansas City, Missouri, was a haven for everyone, including musicians, whose business had been hurt by Prohibition. The local political boss, Thomas Pendergast, created a "relaxed" atmosphere in the city by protecting gangster-owned night spots where unlawful drinking and gambling were allowed to flourish. Kansas City thus became a more profitable base for musicians than other U.S. cities during these years of the Great Depression, and out of this concentration of so many creative musicians in one spot a new style of music was born. A key figure in defining the blues-based, riff-oriented genre that would be called Kansas City Swing was Mary Lou Williams. In 1936, Andy Kirk's big band recorded an original piece of hers, "Froggy Bottom," which became a tremendous success, popular on juke boxes all over the country. Other compositions and arrangements of hers, often written by flashlight while the band was on the road, began to catch the ears of such eminent bandleaders as Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, and Earl Hines, and they began offering her commissions to write for them as well. In an interview for Jazz Journal International, Williams told Stan Britt that she once wrote 20 arrangements in one week for such well-known groups as Louis Armstrong's and Cab Calloway's bands and the Casa Loma Orchestra, and all became hits. Among her best-known pieces for other bandleaders were "What's Your Story Morning Glory" for Jimmie Lunceford, and the boogie-woogie-inspired "Roll 'Em," which became a hit for Benny Goodman.

On the heels of fame came new management and seemingly endless tours. After three years of zigzagging across the South, Williams grew tired of life on the road. Although the bands played to sellout crowds, there was often no place that served food to African-Americans in the towns they toured. There were times when the band members played five or six days of concerts without being able to eat properly; times when they were forced to steal from corn fields because there was no place they could buy food. And there was always the threat of lynchings. Also, audiences now expected the band to sound exactly as it had on record, which Williams found hampered her creativity. By this time she had met Thelonious Monk and Tadd Dameron, was interested by their new sounds, and wanted to try out her own harmonic experiments. Worn out by the combination of racism, physical hardship, and creative frustration, she quit Andy Kirk's band after 12 years and returned to Pittsburgh.

In 1942, she divorced John Williams and married trumpet player Harold "Shorty" Baker. Together they formed a combo which included drummer and bebop pioneer Art Blakey. When Baker went on tour with Duke Ellington, Williams continued leading the sextet for awhile, then quit to join Ellington. In six months on the road, she wrote 15 arrangements for Ellington, including the brilliant "Trumpets No End," which Ellington recorded in 1946, featuring his trumpet section. It became a classic.

By 1944, the marriage to Baker had ended. Mary Lou Williams was now based in New York, and surrounded, in a situation similar to Kansas City in the 1930s, by the exciting musical innovations being made by some of the best jazz musicians of the day. She became one of the few musicians to come out of the boogie-woogie, blues and even big-band traditions who were able to greet the dawn of bebop (also called bop) with enthusiasm, and to make the transition to this new beat. Bop was the rapid, densely noted, technically and harmonically challenging new music invented by young black musicians to counter the commercialization of swing which had been simplified and popularized by white orchestras by the 1940s. Bop utilized extended chords and emphasized the instantaneous composing skills of the soloist. Williams' apartment became the after-hours rehearsal spot and thinktank for such portentous bebop icons as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, and Sarah Vaughan . In an interview with The Village Voice, Williams once recalled how she, Monk and Powell worked on a piece for three pianos through many nights, the three of them sitting at a single piano—a piece which, unfortunately, was never finished. During this time, Williams herself composed the bebop tunes "Oo-Bla-Dee" and "Walking," and her first extended work, The Zodiac Suite, which was performed at New York's Town Hall in 1945, and part of which was performed the following year by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. She made many appearances throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, including a 1947 Carnegie Hall performance with an all-woman trio consisting of Marjorie Hyams (who had played vibes with Woody Herman during World War II) and bassist June Rotenberg . The previous year, the three had recorded Girls in Jazz for RCA Victor with guitarist Mary Osborne and drummer Rose Gottesman . In 1948, Williams recorded some bop experiments with trumpet player Idress Suleiman and bassist George Duvivier, and she had a number of engagements at Cafe Society Up Town and Downtown (1942–47).

From 1952 to 1954, Mary Lou Williams lived in England and France. At the end of this period, she gave up music to devote herself entirely to religious meditation and study. She returned to the U.S., having decided to dedicate her life to helping the poor, which included opening her apartment to homeless persons needing a place to sleep and clean up. She started the Bel Canto Foundation, a charitable organization aimed at rehabilitating ailing, alcoholic, and drug-addicted musicians. In 1956, she joined the Catholic Church. Her many musician friends, including Dizzy and Lorraine Gillespie , urged her to return to her art, but Williams continued to give all of herself to charitable works. Finally, in 1957, she agreed to appear with Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival, playing for the first time in three years. After that, a Jesuit priest, Father Anthony Woods, is reported to have told her, "It's my business to help people through the church, and your business to help people through music."

In 1963, Williams founded her own record label, Mary Records, and began composing and recording pieces to express her religious devotion. Her modern jazz hymn entitled "Black Christ of the Andes" was recorded in 1964, and in 1969 she received a commission from the Vatican to write a sacred jazz mass. Mary Lou's Mass premiered in 1970 at Columbia University, and a year later she rewrote it as a ballet for Alvin Ailey's City Center Dance Theater. In 1978, another production of Mary Lou's Mass was the highlight of the First Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City.

In her last years, Mary Lou Williams was honored many times for her distinguished career, including eight honorary university degrees and two Guggenheim Foundation grants. A street in Kansas City was named after her in 1973, and in 1978 she performed at Jimmy Carter's White House Jazz Party. Well into her 60s, she continued to experiment with new musical forms, joining avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor for a duet concert and album in 1977. In 1976, she joined the music faculty as artist-in-residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, where she wrote, gave concerts, and taught master classes and the history of jazz. Proud of her work at Duke, she continued to teach even while fighting the cancer that took her life, at age 71, on May 28, 1981. True to her calling to help people through music, she bequeathed her entire estate to the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, an organization she founded the year before her death for the purpose of providing individual jazz training for talented young musicians, ages six through twelve.


Britt, Stan. "The First Lady of Jazz," in Jazz Journal International. Vol. 34, no. 9. September 1981, pp. 10–12.

Chilton, John. Who's Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street. Time Life Records Special Edition, 1978.

Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. NY: Limelight Editions, 1989.

Handy, D. Antoinette. Black Women in American Bands and Orchestras. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

——. "Conversation with Mary Lou Williams: First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard," in The Black Perspective in Music, 1980, pp. 195–214.

Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Homzy, Andrew. Mary Lou Williams: The Zodiac Suite Orchestra (liner notes). Vintage Jazz Classics, VJC–1035, 1991.

Jones, Max. Talking Jazz. NY: W.W. Norton, 1987.

McDonough, John. "Mary Lou Williams," in Down Beat. September 1990, p. 21.

McPartland, Marian. "Into the Sun: an Affectionate Sketch of Mary Lou Williams," in All in Good Time. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Mousouris, Melinda. "Mary Lou Williams: Musician as Healer," in The Village Voice. July 23, 1979, pp. 81–84.

Placksin, Sally. Jazzwomen, 1900 to the Present. London: Pluto Press, 1985.

suggested reading:

Dahl, Linda. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams. NY: Pantheon, 2000.

Sherrie Tucker , freelance writer and jazz disk jockey in San Francisco Bay Area, California

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Williams, Mary Lou (1910–1981)

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