Mary Lou Williams

The First Lady of Jazz Piano and Composition

Mary Lou William was the most accomplished and influential female jazz pianist, arranger, composer, and teacher in the twentieth century.  Her music spans the stylistic history of jazz.  She began as pianist at age 14 in the 1920s performing blues, boogie woogie, and stride with touring TOBA bands.  Along the way she learned first hand from Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller.   She spent 12 years touring with Andy Kirk’s swing band as a pianist and arranger.  While in Kirk’s band she wrote arrangements for a half-dozen other swing bands each week including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Gus Arnheim, Glen Gray, Tommy Dorsey and more.  In the 1940s she became the “Mother of Bebop” being the mentor, teacher, and friend to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. Mary Lou wrote 350 original  compositions and recorded more than one hundred records.  Her biggest hit songs were "Roll 'Em" recorded by Benny Goodman and "What's Your Story Morning Glory" a hit for Jimmy Lunceford.  She helped to spread appreciation for jazz with her weekly WNEW radio broadcast “The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop” and her acclaimed performances in Europe. She imparted he her knowledge of jazz to students as an artist in residence at Duke University.  Her importance in jazz history was recognized when she was inducted into the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fall in 1990.

Mary Lou William was a pioneering and adventurous composer and arranger.  Along with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, she was a pioneer in writing extended jazz works.  Her most noted compositions are “Zodiac Suite” and “Mary Lou’s Mass”.    The three movement “Zodiac Suite” was performed by the 70-piece piece New York Pops Orchestra during the June 1946 Carnegie Hall Pops Series.  Her composition Mary Lou's Mass, choreographed by Alvin Aile, was performed at St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1975.  Mary Lou Williams was a much sought after arranger as she was harmonically ahead of her time. She adapted to and influenced the stylistic changes in jazz helping its evolution from blues, to boogie woogie, stride, swing, be-bop, and avant-garde.  She is considered to be one of the top composers in Jazz history. 

"Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and always have been just a little ahead... throughout her career... her music retains - and maintains - a standard quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul" -Duke Ellington

"Outside of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, there's no other composer she has to take a back seat to," David Berger, professor at Manhattan School of Music in The Washington Post.

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910.  She also used the last name of the two step fathers Burley and Winn.  Williams is the last name she took with her first marriage to musician John Williams.  Mary was a child prodigy with perfect pitch and a photographic musical memory.  At age four she was able to play songs on her mother’s organ  by ear.  Her family moved to the mixed ethnic East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 1915 when she was four.  White families in the area threatened black children with knive and peppered them with racial epithets. After bricks were thrown through the windows of her family’s home, Mary became fearful.  Avoiding racial harassment she stayed indoors practicing the piano for hours.  Music became her protective shell. 

Mary studied with a classical piano teacher named Sturzio and played Irish songs for her family.  She learned the blues from her step father Burley, who sang blues songs to Mary.  A professional gambler Fletcher sometimes took Mary to gaming rooms that had upright pianos. Around age 6 Mary started playing the piano the gaming rooms earning up to 20 dollars in tips.  Mary also played blues and boogies at rent parties and at Saturday hops.

Mary attended the Lincoln elementary school from 1919 to 1923 where her musical ability came to the attention of her teachers.  They arranged for her to play for college teas at the University of Pittsburgh and to perform for Pittsburgh’s wealthy families such as the Mellons.  By the age of ten she became known as the “Little Piano Girl from East Liberty and regularly played for 1 dollar an hour at churches, dances, and society parties.  During the time she went to dances, theatres, and Wyle avenue clubs to here jazz artists Louis Deppe, Earl Hines, and Ma Rainy. Pianist be Lovie Austin was her inspiration.  She was a pianist/arranger who wrote music with her right hand while accompanying a show band with her left hand.

While on summer vacation from Westinghouse High School in 1924 Mary was hired at age 14 to play for the traveling black vaudeville show “Hits And Bits”  owned by `Buzzin'' Harris.  They toured on the TOBA circuit known as the “Theatre Owners' Booking Association”.  According to Mary Lou the musicians referred to it as `Tough on Black Artists'.  Making 30 dollars a week Mary traveled for 8 weeks with the “Hits And Bits” to Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati and St Louis. In Chicago her Pittsburgh friend Earl Hines introduced her to Louis Armstrong.  

Returning to Pittsburgh she went back to Westinghouse High School and continued her music studies.  She became friends with pianist Todd Rhodes of McKinney's Cotton Pickers. He mentored her and took her out jamming at the clubs in East Liberty and Wylie Avenue. She sat in with many Pittsburgh jazz artists at clubs like the Subway on Wylie.

When her step father became ill, Mary needed a job to support the family.  Finishing high school she went back to Buzzin' Harris playing with his show on the TOBA and Gus Sun circuits.  Their big break came when the dance team of Seymour and Jeanette hired them to play the Keith-Orpheum theatres, the top venues in the TOBA circuit.  When Seymour died, Williams went with Jeanette to New York in 1925.  She performed with Jeanette at several theaters and found her own engagement at Connie’s Inn and the Layafette Theater.  On one engagement she worked with the members of Duke Ellingston’s band, the Washingtonians. While in New York Mary played for and was tutored by Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller.

Williams continued to play various venues in New York until 1927 when she married saxophone player John Williams to become Mary Williams.  They moved to John’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee to start a band.  Eventually moving to Tulsa and then Kansas City John and Mary William’s joined Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy led by Andy Kirk.  Mary Williams she toured the U.S.  with Kirk and his popular band as a pianist and as the chief arranger.   Billed as "The Lady Who Swings the Band" she was one of the rare female arranger/composers in the era. 

Williams made here first solo recordings “Drag 'Em” and “Night Life” in 1930.   The record producer Jack Kapp, thought the name “Mary Lou” would sell better than plan old Mary.  He put the record out with “Mary Lou Williams” on the label.  The record sold well and the name stuck.  Kirk’s band recorded on Brunswick Records in the early 1930s.  Mary Lou wrote 20 arrangements in one week.  The recordings of the tunes "Cloudy", "Messa Stomp", "Loose Ankles", "Casey Jones Special", and "Froggy Bottom" were classics of during the late twenties.  The band recorded on the Decca label in 1936.  The Andy Kirk band and Mary Lou came to national fame when they appeared on a nightly national broadcast with America's top sports commentator.  Andy Kirk’s band was based out of Kansas City during the 1930s.  Mary Lou Williams became involved in the lively Kansas City Jazz scene.  Her original compositions, arrangements and strong left handed playing spread the Kansas City Swing style.

Leaving the Andy Kirk’s band in 1942 after her divorce from John Williams, she settled in Harlem. She married trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker and co-led a band him.  When Baker joined Duke Ellington, Williams wrote arrangements for Duke including the chart for horn battle called "Trumpets No End".  Beginning in 1943 she began a five year engagement playing on and off at Café Society Downtown in New York City. She also hosted the weekly radio show the Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop from New York during the 1940s.  Her apartment in Harlem became the gathering place for the young experimental jazz artists who she mentored such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke Art Blakey, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker.  They would meet at Williams’ apartment after hours to jam through the night playing new sounds that evolved into Be-Bop.  Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell brought their compositions for her advice. Mel Torme, Erroll Garner, and Sarah Vaughan attended Mary Lou’s late night jam sessions.  She played with Benny Goodman's bebop group briefly in 1948.

Mary Lou lived and performed in Europe from 1952 through 1954 where she converted to Catholicism.  Obsessed with religion she prayed for hours everyday and tried to convert her friends.  She stopped performing regularly to focus her efforts charitable works and on writing scared works from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s including three masses and the “Black Christ of the Andes” a six-and-a-half minute choral work.  She was the first Jazz Composer to write for sacred music.  At the urging of her religious advisers she eventually became less obsessed with religion.  Father Peter F. O'Brien became her manager and encouraged her to perform again.  Mary Lou began playing again in the late 1950s, but she turned down offers for tours and regular club engagements.  She returned to the stage in 1957 performing alongside Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival.

During the 1950s and 1960s Williams recorded occasionally keeping up with the stylistic changes in jazz.  She released "Round Midnight" in 1953.  In the early 1960s she founded Cecilia Music to publishing her compositions and created the Mary Records label to record her own music and music of other artists.  Her 1963 release "My Blue Heaven" blended hard-bop blues with gospel.  She released Mary Lou Williams Presents St. Martin de Porres in also1963. 

In 1971 she was nominated for the Grammy Best Jazz Performance – Group for the album “Giants, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Mary Lou Williams”.  Showing her stylistic jazz diversity she performed duets with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1977.

Over the years Mary Lou Williams recorded as a leader and soloist on several labels including Brunswick (1930), Decca (1938), Columbia, Savoy, Asch and Folkways (1944-1947), Victor, King (1949), Atlantic, Circle, Vogue, Prestige, Blue Star, Jazztone, her own Mary label (1970-1974), Chiaroscuro, SteepleChase, and Pablo (1977-1978).

Duke University appointed Mary Lou William artist-in-residence in 1977.  She held that position she held until her death in 1981.  Mary Lou William’s contributions to jazz have be honored by many.  Kansas City named a street in her honor in 1973.  Duke University honored Williams by opening the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in September 1983.  Fordham, Boston, and Loyola universities along with Manhattan, Bates, and Rockhurst colleges award her honorary degrees. She was also honor with two Guggenheim Fellowships.  The Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame inducted her in 1990.

The Genius of Mary Lou

The Little Piano Girl at age 10 - 1920 Pittsburgh
 Andy Kirk Clouds of Joy Band with Mary Lou
 Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones, Dizzy Gillespie at Mary Lou's Apt

Mary Lou with Ted Heath in London 1952
Mary Lou with Marian McPartland 1953 in London