Mary Lou Williams

Links to some of Mary Lou Williams’ music:

Walkin’ and Swingin’

Zodiac Swing

A Live Performance in 1978

Jazz. It is impossible to think about black art and not automatically think of jazz. After watching La La Land and being completely put off by the erasure of black people in the “let’s save Jazz” narrative, I knew I wanted to include a black female jazz musician in this blog.

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8th, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  In one of the few biographies written about her life, Linda Dahl writes how Mary Lou Williams fell in love with jazz. She says, “She  (Mary) came to understand how the slaves, out of their anguished condition, developed a vital musical communication, combining spirituals and work songs with rhythms that, in Mary’s words, ‘reached deep into the inner self, giving expression of sincere joy.’ ” (Dahl, 5-6)

Mary was a musical prodigy and she taught herself to play the piano and by the time she was six, she was playing at events in order to help support her ten brothers and sisters. She quickly amassed a following around Pittsburgh. At the age of thirteen, she played alongside Duke Ellington for the first time alongside his band, The Washingtonians. In 1925, she joined a band led by saxophonist John Williams. After they married, they moved to Oklahoma where they joined the Twelve Clouds of Joy. It was during this time that she began working as a music arranger and solo pianist. She took on the name Mary Lou and began recording jazz albums. By 1930, at only twenty years old, she was producing, composing, and arranging for jazz greats like Benny Godman and Tommy Dorsey.

She left Twelve Clouds of Joy in 1942 after the divorce of her and John Williams. She went back to Pittsburgh and had her own band for a short period of time. Then, Mary joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra and toured with them for a year. While she was touring with him, she arranged “Trumpet No End” for him. After a year, she left the orchestra and moved to New York.

Mary Lou Williams became a pillar in the New York jazz industry at the Café Society. She started a weekly radio show called Marry Lou Williams’s Piano Workshop.” While in New York, she began mentoring Jazz musicians in the area. Most notably, she began working with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. This is where Mary Lou Williams showed how she could transcend genres. She wrote bebop for Gillespie, but also composed classical music. She staged a complete orchestral performance of a piece she composed called Zodiac Suite, which was performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Mary Lou went to Europe for a few years and even after returning to the United States, she took a break from performing until 1957. However, when she returned to the stage, her focus switched to expanding the reach of jazz. Throughout the 1960s, she began seeking out more clubs in NYC that would allow jazz performance. While doing this, she founded her own record label and the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. Her music also shifted towards more spiritual music and she composed hymns and masses.

Towards the end of her life, Mary Lou spent more of her time in universities and concert halls. She continued to record albums well into the 1970’s and recorded her last album only three years before her death. During this time, she worked as the artist-in residence at Duke University and used that opportunity to bring jazz to young people.

At the time of her death in 1981, Mary had written, composed, and arranged hundreds of songs. Despite being recognized within the jazz world, she is rarely given the same recognition as musicians like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, even though they often hired her to write or play with them. She is just one of many black women who deserve to be highlighted for their great contributions to a genre that has captivated most of America for decades.

Sources used for this post:

Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams by Linda Dahl

Rutgers Mary Lou Evans Archives

NPR Profile

Smithsonian Folkways Magazine

NYT Article about a recent documentary


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