Mary Lou Williams from The Kennedy Center
Composer, arranger, and pianist Mary Lou Williams was long regarded as the only major female musician in jazz, both as a player and as a composer. She was instrumental in the development of Kansas City swing and bebop.
Williams was the only elite jazz artist who lived through all the changes in the history of jazz and played the music of each. She successfully made the switch from Swing to Bop to the Modern era without missing a beat.
Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs (later Burley, taking her stepfather's name) in Atlanta on May 8, 1910, she grew up in East Liberty as one of eleven children. By the age of six, she had taught herself to play the piano.
She began performing publicly at the age of 7, when she became known as "the little piano girl of East Liberty." In 1924, when she was 14, Williams toured on the Orpheum Circuit. At 15, she sat in on a gig with Duke Ellington.
She vividly recalled a moment that came when she was just 15. One morning at 3 she was jamming with McKinney's Cotton Pickers at Harlem's Rhythm Club. Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong entered the room and stopped to listen to her. Mary Lou shyly tells what happened next: "Louis picked me up and kissed me."
In 1925 she joined a group led by sax man John Williams, whom she married. She met him at a show in Cleveland with his group, the Syncopators (sometimes called the "Synco-Jazzers"), and moved with him to Memphis. He assembled a band there which included Williams on piano. In 1929 John Williams joined Andy Kirk's group in Oklahoma City, leaving 19-year-old Mary Lou behind to head the Memphis band for its remaining dates.
Williams eventually joined her husband in Oklahoma City but didn't play for Kirk. He had a pianist, so she just sat in as the need arose. The group, the Twelve Clouds of Joy, moved to Tulsa, where Williams had a day job of transporting bodies for an undertaker.
When the Clouds took a regular gig in Kansas City, Williams joined her husband and began sitting in full time with the band, as well as serving as its' arranger and composer. She provided Kirk with such songs as "Walkin' and Swingin'," "Twinklin'," "Cloudy," "Mary's Idea," and "Little Joe from Chicago".
During the winter of 1930-31 Williams went to Chicago to cut her first solo record, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life," for Brunswick Records. Previously known only as Mary, Williams took the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of the label. The record catapulted Williams into the national limelight.
In 1942, Mary Lou, who had divorced Williams, left the Clouds and returned to Pittsburgh. She was joined there by bandmate Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she formed a six-piece group that included Pittsburgh bebop genius Art Blakey on drums. After a long engagement in Cleveland, Baker left to join 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 she had left Baker and the group for good and went to New York.
Williams also arranged for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and Tommy Dorsey, as well as Jimmy Lunceford, whose band helped make Williams' composition "What's Your Story, Morning Glory" a hit. In 1945 she recorded her first opus, "The Zodiac Suite."
In 1946, it was performed at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic with her and two sidemen, one of the first times that a jazz composition was recognized and played by a symphony orchestra. By now Williams had become an institution in the New York bop scene, penning scores for Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bird Parker, and Thelonious Monk among others. From 1952 to 1954 she was based in Europe, after accepting a gig in England and falling for the continental life.
She returned to the U.S. and took a break from performing, dedicating herself to the Catholic faith, which she joined. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an organization she started to help addicted musicians return to the stage. She opened thrift stores in Harlem, donating the profits and a ten percent tithe of her own earnings to the musicians in need.
Two priests and Gillespie talked her into returning to her music, and she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Gillespie's band. Father Peter O'Brien became her close friend and personal manager in the 1960's.
She remained active throughout the 1960s and 1970s, leading her own groups in New York clubs. Williams composed sacred works for jazz orchestra and voices (she led a choir performing her songs in St. Patrick's Cathedral, drawing 3,000 people), and devoted much of her time to teaching theory and composition.
Weaving her spirituality into her music, Williams recorded the 1963 album "Black Christ of the Andes," dedicated to St. Martin Porres, and in the 1970s she recorded "Mary Lou's Mass," a mix of jazz, R&B, spirituals and gospel music. The work became famous in a version choreographed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.
Not only was Williams a scholar of jazz, she was an important part of it. As she put it, while others lived through the history of jazz, she played through it. In 1970, as a solo pianist providing her own commentary, she recorded "The History of Jazz." She somehow found the time in 1964 to start the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, too.
Towards the end of her life she received a number of honorary doctorates, and starting in 1977, she taught on the staff of Duke University. In 1978, she performed at the White House "Salute To Jazz" concert for President Jimmy Carter. She was a headliner at Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert that same year.
Williams passed away in 1981 at the age of 71 from cancer in Durham, North Carolina. She laid in state in NYC for two days and was buried in Hazelwood's Calvary Cemetery.
As a testament to her influence, trumpeter Dave Douglas released a CD titled "Soul on Soul" as a tribute to her music while pianist John Hicks released his "Impressions of Mary Lou" accompanied by Pittsburghers Dwayne Dolphin on bass and Cecil Brooks III on drums.
Mary Lou Williams is perhaps Pittsburgh's greatest inspiration in the world of jazz, as both and artist and a human. She was most excellent at both.