Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 9, 1910, in Atlanta, GA; died on May 28, 1981, in Durham, NC; married John Williams (divorced); married Harold "Shorty" Baker.

Mary Lou Williams's more than 60-year career as an arranger, composer, and jazz pianist was remarkable, not just because it began when she was a small child, but because it spanned a vast array of musical movements and styles. When she debuted, she played with swing musicians three times her age. In the 1950s and 1960s she aided the careers of many of the young bebop artists who had come up after her. Toward the end of her life she shared affinities---and stages---with some of the most prominent avant-garde musicians of the time.

Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia, although she often used two different stepfathers' surnames, Burley and Winn. Her family moved to Pittsburgh when she was a young girl, and it was there that she first demonstrated her innate talent on the piano, which she had taught herself by ear. She began playing at rent parties---raucous events designed to raise funds to meet the host's housing costs---for one dollar an hour when she was only six years old, and started gigging with Pittsburgh's union bands by the age of 12. In a conversation with D. Antoinette Handy that was posted on the website of New York's Kennedy Center, Williams recalled playing for the Mellons, a wealthy Pittsburgh banking family. "They'd send a chauffeur out for me and I'd play their private parties," she recounted. "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."

Her mother encouraged her musical talent, although lessons were strictly forbidden, Williams told Handy. "[I had] no formal instruction. My mother wouldn't allow a teacher near me. She played by ear, then went to a teacher and ended up not playing at all, just reading music. But my mother kept me in a musical environment. Professional musicians were always coming to the house," she recalled.

When Williams was 13, a traveling Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) vaudeville show called Hits and Bits came to town. When their pianist failed to show, Williams was recommended to the producer, "Buzzin'" Harris. When he met her playing hopscotch at her school, Harris thought he had been tricked, but hired Williams once he heard her play. He then recruited her to join the Hits and Bits band on tour. Williams's mother agreed to let her travel with the band for two months, along with a friend, during her summer vacation. The job earned Williams $30 dollars a week. Williams met her future husband, saxophonist and clarinetist John Williams, at a performance in Cleveland where he was leading his group, the Syncopators.

Williams returned to Pittsburgh and Westinghouse Junior High, which had turned out a wealth of jazz greats including Billy Strayhorn and Erroll Garner. At night she sat in with various local bands. She resumed touring after her stepfather became ill, contacting John Williams and arranging to join his band on the TOBA and Gus Sun circuits. The TOBA circuit proved difficult (musicians nicknamed it "Tough on Black Artists"), but the Syncopators' outlook improved when they were invited to tour with the dance team Seymour and Jeanette. When Seymour died, Williams followed Jeanette to New York, working as her accompanist alongside members of Duke Ellingon's band, the Washingtonians. Williams continued to play various venues in New York until 1927, when she married John Williams and moved with him to Memphis, Tennessee.

John assembled a band in Memphis, which included Mary Lou on piano. In 1929 John accepted an invitation to join Andy Kirk's outfit in Oklahoma City, leaving 17-year-old Mary Lou to head the Memphis band for its remaining tour dates. Williams eventually joined her husband in Oklahoma City but did not play with the band. The group, now known as Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Williams spent her free time transporting bodies for an undertaker. When the Clouds of Joy accepted a longstanding engagement in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams joined her husband there and began sitting in with the band, as well as serving as its arranger and composer.

During the winter of 1930-31 Williams traveled to Chicago to cut her first solo record, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life," for the Brunswick label. Previously known only as Mary, Williams took the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of Brunswick's Jack Kapp. The record sold briskly, catapulting Williams to national fame, although she received no royalties from its sales. 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. By the late 1930s she had come to expect that she would not be paid fairly, if at all, for many of her arrangements. "I had begun to think my arrangements were not worth much, as no one ever wanted to pay for them, and Andy, I knew, could not afford a proper arranger's fee," she recalled in a career history she wrote for Melody Maker in 1954. "But the work paid off in the long run. Whenever musicinas listened to the band they would ask who made a certain arrangement. Nearly always it was one of mine." She had also begun to tire of the hectic touring schedule and nightly routine. "Sometimes I sat on the stand working crossword puzzles, only playing with my left hand," she wrote in Melody Maker. "Every place we played had to turn people away, and my fans must have been disappointed with my conduct. If they were, I wasn't bothering at the time."

Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the band in 1942, returning again to Pittsburgh. She was joined there by bandmate Harold "Shorty" Baker, with whom she formed a six-piece ensemble that included 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 "Trumpet No End," her version of "Blue Skies," but within a year had left Baker and the group and returned to New York.

Williams accepted a regular gig at the Café Society Downtown, started a weekly radio show called "Mary Lou Williams's Piano Workshop" on WNEW, and began mentoring and collaborating with many younger bebop musicians, most notably Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. "During this period Monk and the kids would come to my apartment every morning around four or pick me up at the Café after I'd finished my last show, and we'd play and swap ideas until noon or later," Williams recalled in Melody Maker. Although closely aligned with the bop musicians during her time in New York, Williams also staged a large-scale orchestral rendition of her composition "Zodiac Suite" at Town Hall in 1946 and another with the New York Philharmonic.

In 1952 Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years. When she returned to the United States she took a hiatus from performing, dedicating herself to the Catholic faith. She reemerged as a guest with Gillespie's orchestra at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, after which she continued to explore the genre's newer, modal sounds. 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. In 1964 she co-founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Williams composed several sacred works, although she also began to play in a more progressive style that shared an affinity with the avant-garde musicians of the time, including Cecil Taylor, whom she joined in a 1977 duo performance. That same year she accepted a teaching position at Duke University. After her death in 1981, the university established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. Williams's vast contributions to jazz music were summed up eloquently by Duke Ellington, as posted on the Kennedy Center's website: "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary," he once said. "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."

by Kristin Palm

Mary Lou Williams's Career

Began playing on vaudeville circuit as a teenager; debuted with John Williams's Synco Jazzers in Memphis, TN, at age 16; wrote arrangements for Andy Kirk's orchestra beginning in 1929 and eventually joined the band; co-led combo with Harold "Shorty" Baker, early 1940s; served as staff arranger for Duke Ellington, mid-1940s; co-founded Pittsburgh Jazz Festval, 1964; bandleader, various ensembles, 1960s and 1970s; joined faculty of Duke University, 1977.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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