Mary Lou Williams                                       Years active 1920-1981

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 - May 28, 1981) 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). 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


Background information From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Early years

The second of eleven children, Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


A musical prodigy, at the age of three, she taught herself to play the piano. 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.


At the age of six, she supported her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing at parties. She began performing publicly at the age of seven when she became known admiringly in Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl". She became a professional musician at the age of 15, citing Lovie Austin as her greatest influence.


She married jazz saxophonist John Williams in November 1926.


In 1922, at the age of 12, she went on the Orpheum Circuit of theaters. 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."


In 1927, Williams married saxophonist John Overton Williams.

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-yearold 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, 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".


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. 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.


In 1942, Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the Twelve Clouds of Joy, 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 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. She also sold Ellington on performing "Walkin' and Swingin'".

Within a year she had left Baker and the group and returned to New York.

Williams accepted a job 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 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. "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 classical-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.


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.


In 1952, Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years. By this time, music had taken over her life, and not in a good way; Williams was mentally and physically drained.

Conversion to Catholicism

A three-year hiatus from performing began when she suddenly backed away from the piano during a performance in Paris in 1954. She returned to the United States, converting in 1954 to Catholicism alongside Dizzy Gillespie's wife Lorraine. In addition to spending several hours at Mass, her energies were then devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated using 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. 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. Moreover, Dizzy convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band.

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

Father Peter O'Brien, a Catholic priest, became her close friend and manager in the 1960s. Dizzy also introduced her to Pittsburgh's Bishop John Wright. O'Brien helped her 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 (with the bishop's help), and made television appearances.


     Bishop Wright let her teach at Seton High School on the city's North Side. It was there         that she wrote her first Mass, called “The Pittsburgh Mass.” Williams eventually became       the first jazz composer commissioned by the church to compose liturgical music in the         jazz idiom.


Throughout the 1960s, her composing concentrated on sacred music, hymns, and masses. One of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed by Alvin Ailey and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou's Mass in 1971. 

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?" Williams performed the revision of Mary Lou's Mass, her most acclaimed work, on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.


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.


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. It marked the first time a jazz musician had played at the church. 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.'" She performed at the 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 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. Despite onstage tensions between Williams and Taylor, their performance was released on an live album titled Embraced. 


Williams instructed school children on jazz. She then accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence (from 1977 to 1981), 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. She participated in Benny Goodman's 40thanniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 1978.

Later 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 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. Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Andy Kirk attended her funeral at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. She was buried in the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Looking back at the end of her life, Mary Lou Williams said: "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud." She was known as "the first lady of the jazz keyboard". Williams was one of the first women to be successful in jazz.

Awards and honors

●Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972[35] and 1977.

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

●Honorary degree from Fordham University in New York in 1973

●In 1980 Williams founded the Mary Lou Williams Foundation (http://www.marylouwilliamsfound

●Honorary degree from Rockhurst College in Kansas City in 1980.

●Received the 1981 Duke University's Trinity Award for service to the university, an award voted on by Duke University students.


Videos, Downloads

*Immanuel Kant


Created: 20220210

Updated: 20220216

Wikipedia: This page was last edited on 10 February 2022, at 18:57 (UTC).