Mary Lou Williams

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Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams c. 1946
Mary Lou Williams c. 1946
Background information
Birth nameMary Elfrieda Scruggs
Born(1910-05-08)May 8, 1910
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
DiedMay 28, 1981(1981-05-28) (aged 71)
Durham, North Carolina
GenresJazz, gospel, swing, third stream, bebop
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger, bandleader
Years active1920–1981
LabelsBrunswick, Decca, Columbia, Savoy, Asch, Folkways, Victor, King, Atlantic, Circle, Vogue, Prestige, Chiaroscuro, SteepleChase, Pablo

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981[1]) was an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions).[2] Williams wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Early years[edit]

The second of eleven children, Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[3] A young musical prodigy, at the age of three, she taught herself to play the piano.[4][5] Mary Lou Williams played piano out of necessity at a very young age; her white neighbors were throwing bricks into her house until Williams began playing the piano in their homes.[6] At the age of six, she supported her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing at parties.[7] She began performing publicly at the age of seven when she became known admiringly in Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl."[8] She became a professional musician at the age of 15, citing Lovie Austin as her greatest influence.[9][6] She married jazz saxophonist John Williams in November 1926.[3]


In 1922, at the age of 12, she went on the Orpheum Circuit. During the following year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. One morning at three o'clock, she was playing with McKinney's Cotton Pickers at Harlem's Rhythm Club. Louis Armstrong entered the room and paused to listen to her. Williams shyly told what happened: "Louis picked me up and kissed me."[10]

In 1927, Williams married saxophonist John Overton Williams.[11] She met him at a performance in Cleveland where he was leading his group, the Syncopators, and moved with him to Memphis, Tennessee. He assembled a band in Memphis, which included Williams on piano. In 1929, 19-year-old Williams assumed leadership of the Memphis band when her husband accepted an invitation to join Andy Kirk's band in Oklahoma City. Williams joined her husband in Oklahoma City but did not play with the band. The group, Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy[11], moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Williams, when she wasn't working as a musician, was employed transporting bodies for an undertaker. When the Clouds of Joy accepted a longstanding engagement in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams joined her husband and began sitting in with the band, as well as serving as its arranger and composer. She provided Kirk with such songs as "Froggy Bottom," "Walkin' and Swingin'," "Little Joe from Chicago," "Roll 'Em," and "Mary’s Idea."[12]

Williams was the arranger and pianist for recordings in Kansas City (1929) Chicago (1930), and New York City (1930). During a trip to Chicago, she recorded "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life" as piano solos. She used the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of Jack Kapp at Brunswick Records.[13] The records sold briskly, raising Williams to national prominence. Soon after the recording session she became Kirk's permanent second pianist, playing solo gigs and working as a freelance arranger for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. In 1937, she produced In the Groove (Brunswick), a collaboration with Dick Wilson, and Benny Goodman asked her to write a blues song for his band. The result was "Roll 'Em", a boogie-woogie piece based on the blues, which followed her successful "Camel Hop", named for Goodman's radio show sponsor, Camel cigarettes. Goodman tried to put Williams under contract to write for him exclusively, but she refused, preferring to freelance instead.[14]

In 1942, Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the Twelve Clouds of Joy, returning again to Pittsburgh.[15] She was joined there by bandmate Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she formed a six-piece ensemble that included Art Blakey on drums. After an engagement in Cleveland, Baker left to join Duke Ellington's orchestra. Williams joined the band in New York City, then traveled to Baltimore, where she and Baker were married. She traveled with Ellington and arranged several tunes for him, including "Trumpet No End" (1946), her version of "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin.[16] She also sold Ellington on performing "Walkin' and Swingin'". Within a year she had left Baker and the group and returned to New York.

Mary Lou Williams in her apartment with Jack Teagarden, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones and Dizzy Gillespie

Williams accepted a job at the Café Society Downtown, started a weekly radio show called Mary Lou Williams's Piano Workshop[15] on WNEW and began mentoring and collaborating with younger bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. In 1945, she composed the bebop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Gillespie.[17] "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.

In 1945, she composed the classically-influenced Zodiac Suite, in which each of the twelve parts corresponded to a sign of the zodiac, and were accordingly dedicated to several of her musical colleagues, including Billie Holiday, and Art Tatum.[18] She recorded the suite with Jack Parker and Al Lucas and performed it December 31, 1945 at Town Hall in New York City with an orchestra and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.[19]

In 1952, Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years[12]. By this time, music had taken over her life, and not in a good way; Williams was mentally and physically drained. When she returned to the United States she took a hiatus from performing, converting in 1956 to Catholicism. This three-year hiatus began when she suddenly backed away from the piano during a performance in Paris in 1954.[20] Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. In addition to spending several hours in mass, Williams used her savings as well as help from friends to turn her apartment in Hamilton Heights into a halfway house for the poor as well as musicians who were grappling with addiction; she also made money over a longer period of time for the halfway house by way of a thrift store in Harlem. Her hiatus may have been triggered by the death of her long-time friend and student Charlie Parker in 1955 who also struggled with addiction for the majority of his life.[21] Father John Crowley and Father Anthony aided in persuading Williams to go back to playing music. They told her that she could continue to serve God and the Catholic Church by utilizing her exceptional gift of creating music.[6] Moreover, Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band[12][1]. One can notice a significant difference in her works after her hiatus through her willingness to take more risks with her music as well as her renewed outlook as a proponent of jazz and its legacy.

Father Peter O'Brien, a Catholic priest, became her close friend and manager in the 1960s[1]. They found new venues for jazz performance at a time when no more than two clubs in Manhattan offered jazz full-time. In addition to club work, she played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and made television appearances. Throughout the 1960s, her composing concentrated on sacred music, hymns, and masses. One of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed by the Alvin Ailey and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou's Mass in 1971.[22] About the work, Ailey commented, "If there can be a Bernstein Mass, a Mozart Mass, a Bach Mass, why can't there be Mary Lou's Mass?" [23] Williams performed the revision of Mary Lou's Mass, her most acclaimed work, on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.[24]

Following her hiatus, her first piece was a mass that she wrote and performed was named Black Christ of the Andes (1963), a hymn in honor of the Peruvian saint St. Martin de Porres; two short works, Anima Christi and Praise the Lord.[25] Williams put much effort into working with youth choirs to perform her works, including "Mary Lou's Mass" at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City in April 1975 before a gathering of over three thousand.[6] It marked the first time a jazz musician had played at the church.[5] 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. As a 1964 Time article explained, "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.'"[26] She performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965, with a jazz festival group[15].

Throughout the 1970s, her career flourished, including numerous albums, including as solo pianist and commentator on the recorded The History of Jazz. She returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. She could also be seen playing nightly in Greenwich Village at The Cookery, a new club run by her old boss from her Café Society days, Barney Josephson. That engagement too, was recorded.

She had a two-piano performance with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall on April 17, 1977.[27] Despite onstage tensions between Williams and Taylor, their performance was released on an live album titled Embraced.[28]

Williams instructed school children on jazz.[6] She then accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence (from 1977 to 1981)[29], teaching the History of Jazz with Father 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 for President Jimmy Carter and his guests[15]. She participated in Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 1978[15].

Later years[edit]

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 tracks include "Medley: The Lord Is Heavy", "Old Fashion Blues", "Over the Rainbow", "Offertory Meditation", "Concerto Alone at Montreux", and "The Man I Love".

In 1981, Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina at the age of 71[15]. Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Andy Kirk attended her funeral at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.[8] She was buried in the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh.[30] Looking back at the end of her life, Mary Lou Williams said, "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."[31] She was known as "the first lady of the jazz keyboard".[32] Williams was one of the first women to be successful in jazz.[33]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972 [34] and 1977.
  • Nominee 1971 Grammy Awards, Best Jazz Performance – Group, for the album Giants, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Mary Lou Williams[35]
  • Honorary degree from Fordham University in New York in 1973[23]
  • In 1980 Williams founded the Mary Lou Williams Foundation
  • Honorary degree from Rockhurst College in Kansas City in 1980.[36]
  • Received the 1981 Duke University's Trinity Award for service to the university, an award voted on by Duke University students.[7][8]


  • In 1983, Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture[37]
  • Since 1996, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.[38]
  • Since 2000, her archives are preserved at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark.[39]
  • A Pennsylvania State Historic Marker is placed at 328 Lincoln Avenue, Lincoln Elementary School, Pittsburgh, PA, noting her accomplishments and the location of the school she attended.[40]
  • In 2000, trumpeter Dave Douglas released the album Soul on Soul as a tribute to her, featuring original arrangements of her music and new pieces inspired by her work.[41]
  • The 2000 album Impressions of Mary Lou by pianist John Hicks featured eight of her compositions.[42]
  • The Dutch Jazz Orchestra researched and played rediscovered works of Williams on their 2005 album Lady Who Swings the Band.[43]
  • In 2006, Geri Allen's Mary Lou Williams Collective released their album Zodiac Suite: Revisited.[44]
  • A YA historical novel based on Mary Lou Williams and her early life, entitled Jazz Girl, by Sarah Bruce Kelly, was published in 2010.[45]
  • A children's book based on Mary Lou Williams, entitled The Little Piano Girl, by Ann Ingalls and Maryann MacDonald with illustrations by Giselle Potter, was published in 2010.[43]
  • A poetry book by Yona Harvey entitled Hemming the Water was published in 2013, inspired by Williams and featuring the poem "Communion with Mary Lou Williams".[46]
  • In 2013, the American Musicological Society published Mary Lou Williams' Selected Works for Big Band, a compilation of 11 of her big band scores.[43]
  • In 2015, an award-winning documentary film entitled, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band, produced and directed by Carol Bash, premiered on American Public Television and was screened at various domestic and international film festivals.[47][48][49]
  • In 2018 What'sHerName women's history podcast aired the episode "THE MUSICIAN Mary Lou Williams," [50] with guest expert 'Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band,' producer and director Carol Bash.[51]
  • Mary Lou Williams Lane, a street near 10th and Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri, was named after the renowned jazz artist.[36]
  • She is one of three women who appear in the famous photograph of jazz greats, A Great Day in Harlem.


As leader[edit]

Year Title Label
1945 The Zodiac Suite Folkways
1953 The First Lady of the Piano Vogue
1953 A Keyboard History Jazztone
1959 Messin' 'Round in Montmartre Storyville
1964 Black Christ of the Andes Folkways
1970 Music for Peace Mary
1975 Mary Lou's Mass Mary
1970 From the Heart Chiaroscuro
1974 Zoning Mary / Folkways
1975 Free Spirits Steeplechase
1977 Embraced with Cecil Taylor Pablo Live
1977 My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me Pablo
1978 Solo Recital Pablo
1993 Town Hall '45: The Zodiac Suite Vintage Jazz Classics
1994 Live at the Cookery Chiaroscuro
1999 At Rick's Café Americain Storyville
2002 Live at the Keystone Korner HighNote
2004 Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Guest Mary Lou Williams Jazz Alliance

As featured artist[edit]

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Buddy Tate

Further reading[edit]

  • Buehrer, Theodore E., ed. (2013). Mary's Ideas: Mary Lou Williams's Development as a Big Band Leader. Music of the United States of America (MUSA) vol. 25. Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions.
  • Kernodle, Tammy L. "Williams, Mary Lou". Grove Art Online.
  • 'Drag 'Em': How Movement Shaped The Music Of Mary Lou Williams
  • Soul On Soul: Allison Miller And Derrick Hodge On Honoring Mary Lou Williams
  • How Mary Lou Williams Shaped The Sound Of The Big-Band Era
  • The World Of Mary Lou Williams: A Turning The Tables Playlist
  • Mary Lou Williams On Piano Jazz
  • Mary Lou Williams: 'Mary Lou Williams: 1927-1940'
  • Mary Lou Williams, 'Perpetually Contemporary'


  1. ^ a b c Unterbrink, Mary (1983). Jazz Women at the Keyboard. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. pp. 31–51. ISBN 0-89950-074-9.
  2. ^ Kernodle, Tammy L. Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, (2004); ISBN 1-55553-606-9
  3. ^ a b Frank., Driggs (2005). Kansas City jazz : from ragtime to bebop : a history. Haddix, Chuck. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780195307122. OCLC 57002870.
  4. ^ "Mary Lou Williams". Biography. Archived from the original on 2018-03-15. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  5. ^ a b "Kansas City's early queen of jazz dies at 71". The Kansas City Star. May 29, 1981.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Mary Lou Williams, Missionary Of Jazz". Retrieved 2019-12-18.
  7. ^ a b Wilson, John S. (1981-05-30). "Mary Lou Williams, a Jazz Great, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2018-03-06.
  8. ^ a b c "Mary Lou Williams: Jazz for the Soul". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved 2018-03-06.
  9. ^ Dahl, Linda. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, Pantheon Books, p. 29 (2000); ISBN 0-375-40899-1
  10. ^ "No Kitten on the Keys". Time. 26 July 1943. Retrieved 27 June 2018.
  11. ^ a b Conrads, David. "Mary Lou Williams". The Pendergast Years- The Kansas City Public Library. Retrieved March 4, 2020.
  12. ^ a b c "Mary Lou Williams | American musician, composer and educator". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  13. ^ Max Jones Jazz Talking: Profiles, Interviews, and Other Riffs on Jazz Musicians, Da Capo Press, 2000, p. 190; ISBN 0-306-80948-6
  14. ^ Karin Pendle, American Women Composers, Routledge, 1997, p. 117; ISBN 90-5702-145-5
  15. ^ a b c d e f Klein, Alexander (2011-04-01). "Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)". Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  16. ^ Duke Ellington Music Is My Mistress, Da Capo Press, 1976, p. 169; ISBN 0-306-80033-0
  17. ^ Media, Mountain. "IN THE LAND OF OO-BLA-DEE". Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  18. ^ Griffin, Farah Jasmine (2013). Harlem Nocturne. BasicCivitas Books. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-465-01875-8.
  19. ^ Yanow, Scott (2000). Swing. Miller Freeman. pp. 220–. ISBN 978-1-61774-476-1. Retrieved 8 November 2017.
  20. ^ "Mary Lou Williams | American musician, composer and educator". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-12-18.
  21. ^ "A Woman's Place: The Importance Of Mary Lou Williams' Harlem Apartment". Retrieved 2019-12-18.
  22. ^ "Mary Lou's Mass". Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. 2010-03-16. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  23. ^ a b "Mary Lou Williams Centennial On JazzSet". Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  24. ^ Briscoe, James R. (1997). Contemporary Anthology of Music by Women. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. p. 388. ISBN 0-253-21102-6.
  25. ^ "Shocking Omissions: Mary Lou Williams' Choral Masterpiece". Retrieved 2019-12-18.
  26. ^ "The Prayerful One". Time. 1964-02-21. Retrieved 2008-11-13.
  27. ^ Dahl, Linda. "Mary Lou Williams & Cecil Taylor: Embraceable You?". JazzTimes. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  28. ^ Dahl, Linda. "Mary Lou Williams & Cecil Taylor: Embraceable You?". JazzTimes.
  29. ^ Wilson, John S. (1981-05-30). "Mary Lou Williams, a Jazz Great, Dies". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  30. ^ Jesuits in Britain
  31. ^ Dahl, Linda. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams (2001), p. 379.
  32. ^ "Mary Lou Williams, First Lady of Keyboard Jazz". Retrieved 2018-03-06.
  33. ^ Handy, D. Antoinette; Williams, Mary Lou (1980). "First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard". The Black Perspective in Music. 8 (2): 195–214. doi:10.2307/1214051. JSTOR 1214051.
  34. ^ Kernodle, Tammy Lynn (2004). Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. Boston: Northeastern University Press. p. 247. ISBN 1-55553-606-9.
  35. ^ "The Envelope: Hollywood's Awards and Industry Insider". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2 October 2017.
  36. ^ a b "Mary Lou Williams". The Pendergast Years. 2017-10-13. Retrieved 2018-03-05.
  37. ^ Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, Duke University.
  38. ^ Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival Archived 2007-10-10 at the Wayback Machine, The Kennedy Center.
  39. ^ Mary Lou Williams Archived 2005-09-01 at the Wayback Machine at
  40. ^ "Mary Lou Williams - Pennsylvania Historical Markers on". 2006-12-03. Retrieved 2013-07-02.
  41. ^ Margasak, Peter. "Dave Douglas: Soul on Soul: Celebrating Mary Lou Williams". JazzTimes. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  42. ^ Baker, Duck. "John Hicks: Impressions of Mary Lou". JazzTimes. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  43. ^ a b c "Mary Lou Williams, 1910-1981" Archived 2015-02-26 at the Wayback Machine, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
  44. ^ Conrad, Thomas. "The Mary Lou Williams Collective: Zodiac Suite: Revisited". JazzTimes. Retrieved 2020-03-04.
  45. ^ Kelly, Sarah (2010). Jazz Girl. Bel Canto Press. ISBN 978-0-615-35376-0.
  46. ^ Harvey, Yona (2013). Hemming the Water. Four Way Books. ISBN 193553632X.
  47. ^ The Mary Lou Williams Project Paradox Films, 2014.
  48. ^ Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band Independent Television Service (ITVS). Retrieved 2018-02-02.
  49. ^ Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band Premieres on Public Television in April 2015 Independent Television Service (ITVS). 2015-03-17.
  50. ^ "THE MUSICIAN: Mary Lou Williams". 5 February 2018. Retrieved 29 December 2018.
  51. ^ "Our Guests". Retrieved 29 December 2018.

External links[edit]

  1. ^ The Legacy of Mary Lou Williams, retrieved 2018-03-05