Anyone who had such an effect on figures like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonoius Monk and Charlie Parker simply must be one to never lose the spotlight. It is nowhere near enough to say that she was the greatest female jazz performer of all time. It must be declared that she was among the greatest jazz performers of all time and shared the summit of jazz composition alone with Duke Ellington.
"I'm the only living musician that has played all the eras," Mary Lou Williams confidently advised Marian McPartland in the debut of McPartland's acclaimed radio broadcast, Piano Jazz. "Other musicians lived through the eras and they never changed their styles."
She was correct. Jazz fans and historians long ago concluded that Mary Lou Williams was the most important female jazz musician to emerge in the first three decades of jazz. William's multidimensional talents as an instrumentalist, arranger, and composer made her a star from her earliest days and, over the long haul, an equal to any musician—male or female—successful in those endeavors. Her longevity as a top-echelon jazz artist was extended because of her penchant for adapting to and influencing stylistic changes in the music.
In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, Duke Ellington wrote, "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul."
Indeed, this process of constant reassessment and renewal she applied to her art is only one of the qualities that made Williams a truly unique figure in the history of jazz. William's range of talents, summed up by what Ellington termed "beyond category," suggests both the richness and the ambiguity that have made assessing her role in jazz history challenging.
Her work as a composer and arranger for Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy in the early 1930's reveals one of the earliest examples of a woman given due respect from her peers for her musicianship. William's career opens a window into the critically important Kansas City jazz scene that produced such giants as Count Basie, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker. Her stature in the jazz world is a natural attraction for scholars examining the lives not only of women jazz musicians, but also of twentieth-century African-American women and American history in a larger context.
Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910. To keep order in the house, her mother used to hold Mary Lou on her lap while she practiced an old-fashioned pump organ. One day, Mary Lou's hands beat her mother's to the keys and she picked out a melody. When her mother discovered this (Mary Lou believed she was two or three years old at the time), she had professional musicians come to the house to play for Mary Lou. Thus, very early, Mary Lou was exposed to Ragtime, Boogie-woogie and the Blues.
Later, the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Mary Lou was exposed to all kinds of music. She studied for a time under the then-prominent Sturzio, a classical pianist. An uncle, Joe Epster, paid Mary Lou 50 cents a week to play Irish songs for him (an all-time favorite was "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"). Grandfather Andrew Riser would pay her 50 cents a week to play from the classics which she learned from watching and pressing down the keys on a player piano. However, it was her stepfather, Fletcher Burley, who hummed the Boogie and Blues for her and he would be her main inspiration along with brother-in-law Hugh Floyd.
Fletcher would hide young Mary Lou underneath a big overcoat that he would wear and sneak her into all kinds of places (including gambling joints) where his buddies gathered. Mary Lou describes it: "He'd take off his hat, put it on the table, put a dollar into it, and say: "Stop! Everybody -- my little girl is gonna play for you." He'd pass the hat around. Often, when I'd leave, I'd have twenty-five or thirty dollars. When we got back outside, he'd say: "Give me back my dollar," and then we'd go home. My mother would ask, "Where were you?", and he would reply, "Oh, we went over to Rochelle's." Years later, when she found out where Fletcher had been taking me, she almost went into shock.
Known throughout Pittsburgh as "the little piano girl," Mary Lou was often heard at private parties (including those of such super-wealthy families as the Mellons and the Olivers) well before she was ten years old. Brother-in-law Hugh Floyd would take Mary Lou to the theater to hear and see musicians at work. One day while at the theater Mary Lou heard a great woman pianist and musician, Lovie Austin:
“I remember her in the pit of the theater, legs crossed, cigarette in her mouth, playing with her left hand, conducting at least four other male musicians with her head, and writing music with her right hand for the next act that would appear on the stage. As a little girl, I said to myself, "I'll do this one day." Later on when I was traveling and doing one-nighters with Andy Kirk, I'd play all night with my left hand and write new arrangements with my right -- sometimes I'd work crossword puzzles on the stand. The memory of Lovie Austin is so vivid to me. Seeing her, challenged me into doing difficult things.”
In 1924, age 14 she was taken on the Orpheum Circuit. At fifteen she took to the road with Seymour & Jeanette, a vaudeville act popular in the 1920's, which required that she play purely pop style. That year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. A high and learned salute to her talent came when she was only 15. One morning at 3 AM 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 happened: “Louis picked me up and kissed me.” When in Kansas City, she quit the vaude circus and joined the dance band of John Williams, a skilled saxophonist and clarinetist from Memphis.
It was during the mid-twenties that she made her first recordings with John Williams' Jazz Syncopators. They were soon married, but, lacking in expert management, Williams abandoned his own group and, along with Mary Lou, joined Andy Kirk's orchestra in 1928. Initially, Kirk already had a pianist so Mary Lou forsook the keyboard to write compositions and arrangements and tour with the group as a sort of child bride of Williams. It was this foray into composing and arranging that eventually place her on equal footing with the greatest jazz composer of all time, Duke Ellington. Her situation changed when Kirk gave her the piano chair with his Clouds of Joy and began a series of record sessions for Brunswick. Tunes like "Cloudy", "Messa Stomp", "Loose Ankles", "Casey Jones Special", and "Froggy Bottom" proved classics of the late twenties.
She came to real prominence in the early 1930s with Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, a leading southwestern territory swing band. Williams was not only the band's star soloist but also its chief arranger. Beyond the normal obstacles confronting African-Americans in that pre-civil rights era, she also had to contend with a musical milieu in which women instrumentalists were rare and women arranger/composers virtually non-existent. Billed as "The Lady Who Swings the Band," William's playing and writing were on a par with any of her more famous contemporaries. "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, told The Washington Post.
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 Records' Jack Kapp. The recorddone for Brunswick Records 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", a collaboration with Dick Wilson, then Benny Goodman asked 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", which was 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 band-mate Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she formed a six-piece ensemble that included none other than Art Blakey on drums. After a lengthy engagement in Cleveland, Baker left to join Duke Ellington's orchestra. Williams joined the band in New York, and then traveled to Baltimore, 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 York.
With Williams again settled in New York, where she opened her Harlem apartment to all types of musicians and was particularly encouraging to the experimentation of the young modernists. She helped to inspire and then adapted to the revolutionary new style known as be-bop, which reduced many of her contemporaries to anachronisms. It was Mary Lou who mentored many of the movement's founders, including Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker. [She crossed similar stylistic frontiers in 1977 when she performed a Carnegie Hall concert of duets with the free-form pianist Cecil Taylor. How I would have loved to see that!]
Her writing also continued to grow; along with Duke Ellington, she was a pioneer among jazz composers in producing extended works, such as the Zodiac Suite. In 1945, she debuted segments of the Suite on her weekly radio broadcast, Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop, and performed three movements with the 70-piece New York Pops Orchestra during the June 1946 Carnegie Hall Pops Series. William's tours of England and France in 1952, both widely covered in the European jazz press, placed her in the tradition of Armstrong and Ellington two decades earlier in spreading jazz on the Continent.
In 1956, Williams underwent a spiritual conversion to Catholicism and gave up playing to concentrate on spiritual matters until reemerging in 1957 with a performance alongside Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival. Compared to her rigorous schedule of touring over the previous 30 years, she played only sporadically over the next decade. She formed the Bel Canto Foundation to assist drug- and alcohol-dependent musicians in 1958. This initiative prefigured her founding of Cecilia Music, a publishing firm to release her compositions, and the establishment of Mary Records to issue her and other selected artists' recordings. Both of these events occurred in the early 1960's.
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 York before a gathering of over three thousand. 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 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.
Williams undertook several ambitious extended works during this period, including her 1971 composition Mary Lou's Mass, which was choreographed by Alvin Ailey and, in 1975, was performed during celebration of a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. In 1977, her career undertook yet another significant turn. Duke University formalized William's role as an educator by appointing her as artist-in-residence, a position she held until her death.
Up to the end of her life on May 28, 1981, Mary Lou Williams was thoroughly involved in her music, and in the fight to expose Jazz and see that it survives and develops further. As well as teaching as Artist in Residence at Duke University, she frequently found herself involved in Concerts, Workshops, Residencies, Lecture-Demonstrations, Discussions, Radio and TV. A three or five day residency on a Campus found her on stage in concert with her trio, in a music or black history class, in lecture-demonstrations in large halls detailing, on the piano and in question-and-answer periods, the roots and history of Black American Music and Jazz, with the college archivist taping oral history for the future. [Duke University permanently honored William's contributions by opening the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in September 1983 with an address by Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison.]
Mary Lou appeared in clubs, on the concert stage, in the recording studio, on radio and TV, in churches large and small in performances of her Mass, in grade and high schools playing and lecturing at assemblies -- in short, she continued to be directly in the forefront of music which is exactly where she has always belonged.
Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina, aged 71. She was buried in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in her native Pittsburgh. As she herself said, looking back at her life, "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."