Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams / Mary Elfrieda Scruggs (1910–1981)
Williams took the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of Brunswick Record's Jack Kapp as quoted in Max Jones's Jazz Talking: Profiles, Interviews, and Other Riffs on Jazz Musician's, Da Capo Press, 2000, 190. Her last name of Williams came from her husband, saxophonist John Williams, who she married at age 16.
musical prodigy who could pick out simple tunes at age two, who taught herself to play the piano at three years old, including playing back a tune she heard her mother play on the family organ at that age, and discovered in high school she had perfect pitch.
“No woman other than the vocalists Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald had so dominated the swing scene or earned the genuine respect of bandleaders and musicians alike.”
the Kirk band in the 1930s success was largely due to her distinctive arrangements, compositions and solo performances on the piano. Listen to Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy with arrangements and compositions by Williams. See Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy discography.
wrote and arranged "Camel Hop" written for Benny Goodman's radio show sponsor, Camel cigarettes, followed by another big hit for Goodman in her "Roll 'Em" (a boogie-woogie piece based on the blues) (1937), "What's Your Story, Morning Glory" for Jimmie Lunceford, arrangements for the biggest act at the time of Cab Calloway, rearranged Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" as "Trumpets No End" (1943) a big hit for Duke Ellington that Ellington recorded in 1946 and the Dizzy Gillespie smash hit, "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" (1949).
became involved with a younger group of New York musicians including Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Tadd Dameron, and Dizzy Gillespie (1943), moving from what Encyclopedia Brittanica describes as “an established musician in the swing style, she easily made the transition to bebop. Her apartment became a meeting place, and she wrote several important compositions in the bebop style, including “In the Land of Oo-Blah-Dee,” “Tisherone,” “Knowledge,” “Lonely Moments,” and “Waltz Boogie.” The latter was recorded with Girl-Stars, one of her several women’s bands, in 1946.”
premiered the first of many large compositions including the 12-movement Zodiac Suite whose “Capricorn” movement was created especially for dancer Pearl Primus who also performed at Café Society (1945).
moved to Europe performing in both Paris and London (1952).
an important figure in Bebop who contributed scores to Dizzy Gillespie’s big band.
worked with some of music’s greatest legends, including Ben Webster,Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell.
resumed her career in 1957 where she remained active throughout the 1960s and 1970s leading her own groups in New York clubs, composing sacred works for jazz orchestra and voices, and devoting much of her time to teaching.
“easily adapting in the 1940s to the new Bebop idiom and in the 1960s her play attained a level of complexity and dissonance that rivaled avant-garde pianism of the time, but without losing the underlying blues feeling."
breadth of her work as a composer and arranger can be seen from her expert swing-band scores for Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy (Listen to Walkin’ and Swingin’, or Mary’s Idea, etc.) to the large-scale sacred works of the 1960s and 70s.
her "Waltz Boogie" (1946) was one of the earliest attempts to adapt jazz to non-duple meters.
In the 1960s and ’70s composed a number of her sacred works and liturgical pieces for jazz ensembles, including a cantata, "Black Christ of the Andes" (1962); three masses that included "Black Christ of the Andes" (see track list for "Black Christ of the Andes") (1963), "Mass for the Lenten Season" (1968), "Music for Peace" (1970), popularly known as "Mary Lou’s Mass" which (1970) became well known in a version choreographed by Alvin Ailey.
In 1970 as a solo pianist and providing her own commentary, she recorded a comprehensive performance-lecture entitled "The History of Jazz." (FW2860)
Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972 and 1977.
“Why have jazz historians generally avoided serious consideration of her music and her contributions to jazz, even as she garnered praise and respect from her peers? One obvious answer is that Mary Lou Williams was a woman performing and writing in the male-dominated field of jazz music whose abilities enabled her to defy the conventional gender roles implicit in the jazz narratives of her day. According to this view, women in jazz were rare, women pianists rarer still, and women who, besides their superiority as players, could also compose and arrange first-class music for big band and combo were simply unheard of. Yet Duke Ellington famously described (in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress) that Williams was "perpetually contemporary," going on to say that "her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead throughout her career."
nominee Grammy Awards, Best Jazz Performance – Group, for the album "Giants—Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Mary Lou Williams" (1971); also released under the title "Mary Lou Williams and the Trumpet Giants."
Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture (1983).
the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival (annually since 1996).
her 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.
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 (2000).
the album "Impressions of Mary Lou" by pianist John Hicks featured eight of her compositions (2000).
had a small cameo in Ken Burns’s documentary "Jazz" on PBS (Public Broadcasting System) (2001).
a YA historical novel based on Mary Lou Williams entitled Jazz Girl, by Sarah Bruce Kelly, published in 2010.
merited a children's book based on Mary Lou William's early life, entitled The Little Piano Girl by Ann Ingalls and Maryann MacDonald with illustrations by Giselle Potter, (published in 2010).
a poetry book by Yona Harvey entitled Hemming the Water published in 2013, inspired by Williams and featuring the poem "Communion with Mary Lou Williams" (2011).
Her New York Times obituary reports that “Miss Williams was an important contributor to every aspect of jazz that developed during a career that began in the late 1920's and lasted for more than half a century.”
an award-winning documentary film entitled, "Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band,"
What'sHerName women's history podcasts aired the episode "THE MUSICIAN: Mary Lou Williams," with guest expert "Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band," producer and director Carol Bash (2018).
Listen to Mary Lou Williams playing and being interviewed by Marian McPartland (1918– 2013) on the very first episode of McPartland's "Piano Jazz" (recorded live in 1978) with bassist Ronnie Boykins.
Mary Lou Williams Lane, a street near 10th and Paseo in Kansas City, Missouri, was named after her (2018).
Tammy L. Kernodle, (B.M., M.A.), "Anything You are Shows Up in Your Music: Mary Lou Williams and the Sanctification of Jazz," Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1997.
Tammy L. Kernodle, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004).
- Mary Lou Williams Interview, Melody Maker, April to June, 1954.
- Cassandra Jensen, "Top 10 Reasons Mary Lou Williams Should Be Your Favorite Jazz Musician," BlackPublicMedia.org, (March 31, 2015), third paragraph.
- Encyclopedia Brittanica: Mary Lou Williams, first paragraph. Most recently updated on May 25, 2018.
- Tammy L. Kemodle, "Ch. 5: How Do You Keep the Music Playing?," in Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2020), 81.
- As claimed in the Encyclopedia Brittanica: Mary Lou Williams, second paragraph:
“In 1927, when her husband, saxophonist and bandleader John Williams, moved to Oklahoma to join the popular Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy, Mary Lou Williams took over the leadership of his band. She began a successful arranging career in 1929, when she moved to Oklahoma to join her husband with Kirk. During her time with Kirk, the band became well known for her stunning solo piano and highly original arrangements, including “Froggy Bottom,” “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” “Roll ’Em,” and “Mary’s Idea.” She is widely credited as a major influence for the Kansas City–Southwest Big Band sound that Twelve Clouds of Joy helped to popularize.” (bold not in original)
- Encyclopedia Brittanica: Mary Lou Williams, fourth paragraph.
- "Mary Lou Williams," February 23, 2016, TurtleLearning Blog, 8th paragraph. Accessed September 15, 2019.
- Williams performed the full piece for the first time at Saint Francis Xavier Church (located at 46 West 16th Street near 6th Avenue in New York) November, 1962, and she recorded it in October 1963.
- “Tammy L. Kernodle provides a second reason for William's exclusion from most jazz historical narratives: her piano style, composing style, and arranging style defied categorization. Williams mastered each new style from the 1930s into the 1970s, and her arrangements similarly evolved with the passage of time.” in "Mary's Ideas: Big Band Music by Mary Lou Williams," "A Woman's Place in Narratives of Jazz," Theodore E. Buehner, Mary Lou Williams: Selected Works in Big Band, edited by Theodore E. Buehner, (Middleton, Wisconsin: A-R Editions, Inc, 2013), xiii.
- According to John S. Wilson, "Mary Lou Williams, A Jazz Great, Dies," NYTimes Obituary, (May 31, 1981), 5th paragraph.
- "Mary Lou Williams, A Jazz Great, Dies," John S. Wilson, May 30, 1981, Section 1, 21.