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Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910May 28, 1981) was an Americanmarker jazz pianist, composer, and arranger. Williams wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements, and recorded more than one hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions). Williams wrote and arranged for such famed bandleaders as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Early years

Born as Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgiamarker, she grew up in the East Libertymarker neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker, one of eleven children. As a very young child she taught herself to play the piano (her first public performance was at the age of six). She became a professional musician in her teens. She cites Lovie Austin as her greatest influence. At age six Williams was already helping to support her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing for parties. She began performing publicly at the age of seven, when she became known admiringly in her native Pittsburgh as "the little piano girl of East Liberty".


In 1924, age 14 she was taken on the Orpheum Circuit. The following year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. One high and learned salute to her talent came when she was only 15. One morning at 3 she was jamming with McKinney's Cotton Pickers at Harlem's Rhythm Club. The great Louis Armstrong entered the room and paused to listen to her. Mary Lou shyly tells what presently happened: "Louis picked me up and kissed me."

In 1927 Williams married saxophonist John Williams. She met him at a performance in Cleveland where he was leading his group, the Syncopators, and moved with him to Memphis, Tennesseemarker. 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 Citymarker, leaving 19-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, Oklahomamarker, where Williams spent her free time transporting bodies for an undertaker. When the Clouds of Joy accepted a longstanding engagement in Kansas City, Missourimarker, Williams joined her husband there and began sitting in with the band, as well as serving as its arranger and composer. She provided Kirk with such songs as "Walkin' and Swingin'", "Twinklin'", "Cloudy'","Little Joe from Chicago" and others.

From the first sides Kirk made in Kansas City, Williams was on board as pianist and arranger. (6 sides were recorded in Kansas City during 1929 and remaining 17 sides were recorded in Chicago in 1930, and a further 2 were recorded in New York in 1930.) During one of those trips to Chicago in 1930, Williams recorded "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life" as piano solos. Williams took the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of Brunswick's Jack Kapp. The record sold briskly, catapulting Williams to national fame. 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. In 1937 she produced In the Groove (Brunswick), a collaboration with Dick Wilson, and Benny Goodman ask Mary to write a blues for his band. The result was "Roll 'Em", a boogie-woogie piece based on the blues, which followed her successful "Camel Hop", Goodman's theme song for his radio show sponsored by Camel cigarettes. Goodman tried to put Williams under contract to write for him exclusively, but she refused, preferring to freelance. Williams had become one of the most sought-after composers of the Swing Era.

In 1942, Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the "Twelve Clouds of Joy" band, 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 Yorkmarker, and then traveled to Baltimoremarker, where she and Baker were married. She traveled with Ellington and arranged several tunes for him, including "Trumpets No End" (1946), her version of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," but within a year had left Baker and the group and returned to New Yorkmarker.

Williams accepted a regular gig at the Café Societymarker 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. In 1945 Williams composed the bebop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Dizzy Gillespie. "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 Yorkmarker, Williams also staged a large-scale orchestral rendition of her composition Zodiac Suite at Town Hall in 1945, on Folkways label, with bassist Al Lucas and drummer Jack "The Bear" Parker, and the New York Philharmonic.

In 1952 Williams accepted an offer to perform in Englandmarker 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. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. Two priests and Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band. Father Peter O'Brien became her close friend and personal manager in the 1960s. Together they found new venues for jazz performance at a time when no more than two clubs in Manhattan had jazz full-time. In addition to club work Mary played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and made television appearances. Throughout the 1960s her composing focused on sacred music - hymns and masses. One of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as “Mary Lou's Mass”. She performed the revision of "Mary Lou's Mass" on the television, The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.

She wrote and performed religious jazz music like Black Christ of the Andes (1963), a hymn in honor of the St. Martin de Porres; two short works, Anima Christi and Praise the Lord. In this period Mary put much effort into working with youth choirs to perform her works, including mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New Yorkmarker before a gathering of over three thousand. She set up a charitable organization and opened thrift stores in Harlemmarker, directing the proceeds, along with ten percent of her own earnings, to musicians in need. As an 1964 Time article explains, "Mary Lou thinks of herself as a 'soul' player — a way of saying that she never strays far from melody and the blues, but deals sparingly in gospel harmony and rhythm. 'I am praying through my fingers when I play,' she says. 'I get that good "soul sound," and I try to touch people's spirits.'"She performed at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965, with a jazz festival group.

Throughout the 1970s her career flourished, including numerous albums, including as solo pianist and commentator recorded The History of Jazz. She returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. She had a two-piano performance with pianist Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hallmarker in 1977. She accepted an appointment at Duke Universitymarker as artist-in-residence (from 1977 to 1981), co-teaching the History of Jazz with Father Peter O'Brien and directing the Duke Jazz Ensemble. With a light teaching schedule, she also did many concert and festival appearances, conducted clinics with youth, and in 1978 performed at the White House. She starred at Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hallmarker concert in 1978.

Last years

Her final recording, Solo Recital (Montreux Jazz Festival, 1978), three years before her death had a medley encompassing spirituals, ragtime, blues and swing. Other highlights include Williams's reworkings of "Tea for Two", "Honeysuckle Rose", and her two compositions "Little Joe from Chicago" and "What's Your Story Morning Glory". Other songs include "Medley: "The Lord Is Heavy", Old Fashion Blues", "Over the Rainbow","Offertory Meditation", "Tea for Two", "Concerto Alone at Montreux", "Man I Love", "What's Your Story,Morning Glory?", and "Honeysuckle Rose".


Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolinamarker, aged 71. She was buried in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemeterymarker in her native Pittsburgh. As Mary Lou Williams said, looking back at the end of her life, "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."

Honors, awards, and legacy

  • Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972 and 1977

  • Nominatee 1971 Grammy Awards, Best Jazz Performance - Group, for the album Giants, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Mary Lou Williams

  • Received the 1981 Duke University's Duke's Trinity Award for service to the university. In 1983, Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.

  • Since 2000, her archives are preserved at Rutgers Universitymarker's Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark.

Selective discography

Year Title Genre Label
2007 The Circle Recordings Bop, Swing, Stride Progressive
1999 1944-1945 Bop, Swing, Stride Classics
1978 Solo Recital (Montreux Jazz Festival 1978 - Live) Bop, Swing, Stride Pablo
1977 My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me Bop, Swing, Stride Pablo
1975 Free Spirits Bop, Swing, Stride Steeplechase
1974 Zoning Bop, Swing, Stride Folkways
1970 From the Heart Blues, Rock, Jazz, Gospel Chiaroscuro
1964 Mary Lou's Mass Blues, Gospel Mary
1963 Black Christ of the Andes Blues, Gospel Folkways
1953 The First Lady of the Piano Bop, Swing, Stride Inner City
1945 The Zodiac Suite Bop, Swing, Stride Folkways
1944 Roll 'Em Bop, Swing, Stride Audiophile


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