Mary Lou Williams
Mary Lou Williams c. 1946
|Mary Elfrieda Scruggs|
|Born||May 8, 1910|
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||May 28, 1981 (aged 71)|
Durham, North Carolina
|Genres||Jazz, gospel, swing, third stream, bebop|
|Musician, composer, arranger, bandleader|
|Labels||Brunswick, Decca, Columbia, Savoy, Asch, Folkways, Victor, King, Atlantic, Circle, Vogue, Prestige, Chiaroscuro, SteepleChase, Pablo|
Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981) was an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions). Williams wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie.
The second of eleven children, Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A young musical prodigy, at the age of three, she taught herself to play the piano. At the age of six, she supported her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing at parties. She began performing publicly at the age of seven when she became known admiringly in Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl." She became a professional musician in her teens, citing Lovie Austin as her greatest influence. She married jazz saxophonist John Williams in November 1926.
In 1922, at the age of 12, she went on the Orpheum Circuit. During the following year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. One morning at three o'clock, she was playing with McKinney's Cotton Pickers at Harlem's Rhythm Club. Louis Armstrong entered the room and paused to listen to her. Williams shyly told what happened: "Louis picked me up and kissed me."
In 1926, Williams married saxophonist John Overton Williams. She met him at a performance in Cleveland where he was leading his group, the Syncopators, and moved with him to Memphis, Tennessee. He assembled a band in Memphis, which included Williams on piano. In 1929, 19-year-old Williams assumed leadership of the Memphis band when her husband accepted an invitation to join Andy Kirk's band in Oklahoma City. Williams joined her husband in Oklahoma City but did not play with the band. The group, Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Williams, when she wasn't working as a musician, was employed transporting bodies for an undertaker. When the Clouds of Joy accepted a longstanding engagement in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams joined her husband and began sitting in with the band, as well as serving as its arranger and composer. She provided Kirk with such songs as "Walkin' and Swingin'", "Twinklin'", "Cloudy'", and "Little Joe from Chicago".
Williams was the arranger and pianist for recordings in Kansas City (1929) Chicago (1930), and New York City (1930). During a trip to Chicago, she recorded "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life" as piano solos. She used the name "Mary Lou" at the suggestion of Jack Kapp at Brunswick Records. The records sold briskly, raising Williams to national prominence. Soon after the recording session she became Kirk's permanent second pianist, playing solo gigs and working as a freelance arranger for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. In 1937, she produced In the Groove (Brunswick), a collaboration with Dick Wilson, and Benny Goodman asked her to write a blues song for his band. The result was "Roll 'Em", a boogie-woogie piece based on the blues, which followed her successful "Camel Hop", named for Goodman's radio show sponsor, Camel cigarettes. Goodman tried to put Williams under contract to write for him exclusively, but she refused, preferring to freelance instead.
In 1942, Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the Twelve Clouds of Joy, 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 an engagement in Cleveland, Baker left to join Duke Ellington's orchestra. Williams joined the band in New York City, then traveled to Baltimore, where she and Baker were married. She traveled with Ellington and arranged several tunes for him, including "Trumpet No End" (1946), her version of "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin. She also sold Ellington on performing "Walkin' and Swingin'". Within a year she had left Baker and the group and returned to New York.
Williams accepted a job 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 younger bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. In 1945, she composed the bebop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Gillespie. "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.
In 1945, she wrote the "Zodiac Suite" in which each of the twelve parts corresponded to a sign of the zodiac. She recorded the suite with Jack Parker and Al Lucas and performed it at Town Hall in New York City with an orchestra and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.
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, converting in 1956 to Roman Catholicism. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. Two priests and Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band.
Father Peter O'Brien, a Catholic priest, became her close friend and manager in the 1960s. They found new venues for jazz performance at a time when no more than two clubs in Manhattan offered jazz full-time. In addition to club work, she played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and made television appearances. Throughout the 1960s, her composing concentrated on sacred music, hymns, and masses. One of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed by the Alvin Ailey and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as Mary Lou's Mass in 1971. About the work, Ailey commented, "If there can be a Bernstein Mass, a Mozart Mass, a Bach Mass, why can't there be Mary Lou's Mass?"  Williams performed the revision of Mary Lou's Mass, her most acclaimed work, on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.
She wrote and performed religious jazz music such as 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, Williams put much effort into working with youth choirs to perform her works, including mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City 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 a 1964 Time article explained, "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 Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965, with a jazz festival group.
Throughout the 1970s, her career flourished, including numerous albums, including as solo pianist and commentator on the recorded The History of Jazz. She returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. She could also be seen playing nightly in Greenwich Village at The Cookery, a new club run by her old boss from her Café Society days, Barney Josephson. That engagement too, was recorded.
She had a two-piano performance with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall in 1977.
She accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence (from 1977 to 1981), teaching the History of Jazz with Father O'Brien and directing the Duke Jazz Ensemble. With a light teaching schedule, she also did many concert and festival appearances, conducted clinics with youth, and in 1978 performed at the White House. She participated in Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 1978.
Her final recording, Solo Recital (Montreux Jazz Festival, 1978), three years before her death, had a medley encompassing spirituals, ragtime, blues and swing. Other highlights include Williams's reworkings of "Tea for Two", "Honeysuckle Rose", and her two compositions "Little Joe from Chicago", and "What's Your Story Morning Glory". Other tracks include "Medley: The Lord Is Heavy", "Old Fashion Blues", "Over the Rainbow", "Offertory Meditation", "Concerto Alone at Montreux", and "The Man I Love".
In 1981, Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina at the age of 71. Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, and Andy Kirk attended her funeral at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola. She was buried in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Looking back at the end of her life, Mary Lou Williams said, "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud." She was known as "the first lady of the jazz keyboard". Williams was one of the first women to be successful in jazz.
|1945||The Zodiac Suite||Folkways|
|1953||The First Lady of the Piano||Vogue|
|1953||A Keyboard History||Jazztone|
|1959||Messin' 'Round in Montmartre||Storyville|
|1963||Black Christ of the Andes||Folkways|
|1964||Music for Peace||Mary|
|1964||Mary Lou's Mass||Mary|
|1970||From the Heart||Chiaroscuro|
|1977||My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me||Pablo|
|1993||Town Hall '45: The Zodiac Suite||Vintage Jazz Classics|
|1994||Live at the Cookery||Chiaroscuro|
|1999||At Rick's Café Americain||Storyville|
|2002||Live at the Keystone Korner||HighNote|
|2004||Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Guest Mary Lou Williams||Jazz Alliance|
With Dizzy Gillespie
With Buddy Tate