Mary Lou Williams:
First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard
Mary Lou Williams was born May 8, 1910, in Atlanta. Her surname at one time or another was Scruggs or Burley or Winn. Joe Scruggs was her real father; Burley and Winn were stepfathers. If one father made her angry, she would switch to another’s name. She was particularly fond of Burley and consequently carried his name until she married John Williams in 1927.
The family moved from Atlanta to Pittsburgh when Mary Lou was somewhere between four and six years of age. By age six she was already a professional, playing at parties for a dollar an hour. By age 12 she was playing jobs with Pittsburgh’s union bands and touring the TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Association, or Tough on Black Artists) vaudeville circuit in "Hits and Bits," the Gus Sun Circuit, and the B.F. Keith and Orpheum circuits with the act Seymour and Jeanette. In these early years, she also sat in with Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians.
"Around Pittsburgh, I played for many wealthy families, the Mellons in particular. I was just a kid. They were wonderful! They’d send a chauffeur out for me and I’d play for their private parties. Once they gave me $100. My mother almost fainted. She wanted to know if the lady drank. She even called the people to see if they had made a mistake."
Mary Lou later sat in with the Syncopators (also know as the Synco Jazzers). Fronting the latter group was her recently acquired husband John Williams, a baritone and alto saxophonist. Their home base was now Memphis. When John departed for Oklahoma City to join Terrence Holder’s band (soon to become Andy Kirk’s band), Mary Lou remained in Memphis, fronted Williams’ band, and on occasion hired the mighty Jimmie Lunceford. When Kirk’s band settled in Kansas City in 1929, Mary Lou joined and began filling in in various capacities--driving the bus, sewing clothes, what have you. She became the band’s official pianist and chief arranger in 1931, remaining until 1941.
With the Andy Kirk Band, she was known as "the little girl who swings the band." From the mid-1930s, she was an arranger for Benny Goodman and a staff arranger for Duke Ellington. She arranged for most big bands during the Swing Era, including Bob Crosby, Cab Calloway, the Dorseys, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines.
Following the Andy Kirk years (post-1941), Mary Lou fronted her own combo which included her second husband, Harold "Shorty" Baker, on trumpet and Art Blakey on drums. In 1945 she wrote the "Zodiac Suite," including 12 compositions. In 1946, parts of the Suite were scored for the New York Philharmonic. The Philharmonic performance (in Carnegie Hall) featured Mary Lou on piano. All told, she wrote more than 350 compositions.
Mary Lou Williams was a headliner at leading clubs in this country and abroad. She maintained the title "modernist" throughout her career. She moved to Europe in the 1950s and returned to the States in 1955, when she dropped out of music. She turned her back on jazz and became immersed in Catholicism. This period no doubt gave impetus to her several sacred compositions. In 1964 she founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and served as its director for three years (with help from trombonist, composer, and arranger Melba Liston).
Mary Lou was a true professional, and expected others to be the same. This interesting statement was published in Down Beat (October 17, 1957):
"A lot of the musicians today, they don’t seem to have that real friendship for each other they used to have; and people don’t go out and play for fun anymore. I notice these things more because I’ve been away from the scene for so long. And everyone putting everyone else down, and some guys put on such an act! You’ll see a guy putting on such a good act, if he ever found out he wasn’t really the person he thought he was, he’d die! Musicians should try to help each other, not talk about each other. If you feel good inside, you can change people and make them feel it, too, and that goes for audiences. You can really change an audience. If you’re relaxed and you’re sincere, they’ll know it, and they’ll start to feel the same way."
Mary Lou was the only major jazz artist who lived through all eras in the history of jazz and played the music of each era. She successfully made the change from Swing to the Modern era. She inspired and encouraged Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker, Kenny Dorham, and others; her New York residence was their headquarters. Mary Lou even published her own music (through her Cecilia Publishing Company) and recorded for her own Mary Records label.
Jazz journalist John Wilson wrote,
"Because she has lived and played through almost every development that has happened in jazz, Miss Williams is a unique, living repository of jazz history."
Pianist Marian McPartland wrote,
"Mary Lou is one person who has entirely transcended the label of "woman musician"...Mary Lou is respected by everybody because she knows her craft so well and everyone knows she knows. And it is the reason why she achieved such a high place in the jazz hierarchy so early in life and has continued as an innovator."
Duke Ellington wrote,
"Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead and throughout her career...her music retains--and maintains--a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul."
Recognition of her contribution to the world of music came in the form of honorary degrees from Fordham, Boston, and Loyola universities and Manhattan, Bates, and Rockhurst colleges, as well as two Guggenheim Fellowships. In 1973 a street was named in her honor in Kansas City. She was the featured performer at the International Premiere Concert of the Women’s Jazz Festival in March 1978. In the same year, she was a featured performer at President Jimmy Carter’s White House Jazz Party. She founded and served as President of the Bel Canto Foundation for needy musicians as well as the general poor and young children, and she started the New Reform Foundation for gifted children between the ages of 6 and 12. She conducted musical workshops in storefronts and on the streets of Harlem.
Mary Lou Williams died May 28, 1981, in Durham, where she had been artist-in-residence at Duke University since 1977. Her remains were brought to New York City, where she lay in state for two days. Following the celebration of Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola, the remains were brought to Pittsburgh.