“Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead…her music maintains a quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.” -Duke Ellington
Pianist, composer, arranger and educator Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) was to female jazz instrumentalists what Jackie Robinson was to Black baseball players.
Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, and raised in Pittsburgh, Williams was a self-taught, child prodigy, known as “the little piano girl.” She performed her first gig at the age of six, and later earned enough money from playing at private parties hosted by affluent White families like the Mellons and Olivers to become the breadwinner of her family.
“I have been tied up with music for about as long as I can remember,” she once told the British music tabloid, Melody Maker. “By the time I was four, I was picking out little tunes my mother played on the reed organ in the living-room. We lived in a big, timber-framed building: what we called a shotgun house, because if you fired through the front door the shot passed through all the rooms and out into the back yard, likely ending up in the privy.”
Although she lived a hard-knock life punctuated by the absence of her birth father and a sometimes neglectful mother, Mary Lou found light in music, and escaped from the 'hood by traveling with carnivals and vaudeville shows.
At sixteen, she married saxophonist John Williams, mostly as a matter of convenience. They lived in Memphis and Kansas City, where they joined Andy Kirk and his Mighty Clouds of Joy big band in 1929. She composed songs and wrote arrangements for the band including "Froggy Bottom,” and “Mary’s Idea.” Her skills as a arranger and composer also put her in high demand, as evidenced by her work with Benny Goodman (“Roll ‘Em”) and Jimmie Lunceford (“What’s Your Story, Morning Glory”) and Duke Ellington (“Trumpets No End”).
During a time when women were mostly singers and female instrumentalists were novelties (Louis Armstrong’s pianist wife Lil Armstrong and keyboardist/composer Lovie Austin were notable exceptions), Williams’ piano style was driving, masculine and most importantly, swinging. And, unlike many artists, she was a master of every jazz idiom: she could play ragtime, boogie-woogie, stride, the blues and beyond.
Williams' jazz life was hard. Throughout the Depression, in addition to dealing with the racism of that period, she suffered through being ripped off by managers and record producers, thieving bandmates, who stole her music and physical abuse from her lovers, including saxophonist Don Byas, who beat her in public. “I can’t keep husbands or sweethearts, I forget about them,” she says in Linda Dahl’s Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams. “I forget about friends too. I guess the only thing I really love is music.”
Williams left Andy Kirk, divorced her husband, and moved to New York in 1939. There, she became a fixture in the integrated Greenwich Village nightclub Café Society, hosted a radio show, and bought her first home in upper Harlem, just in time to hear the evolution of a new angular and complex style of jazz called bebop. Unlike a lot of her peers, who hated the music, Williams not only welcomed it and played it, she became a teacher and counselor to two of that idiom's greatest pianists, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Her Harlem apartment was a kind of jazz salon, where Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Art Blakey and Charlie Parker would visit and exchange ideas. It was in New York that her stature as a musician grew. In 1945, she premiered her chamber-jazz work, The Zodiac Suite at Town Hall, and later worked in Paris and London.
But the grueling jazz grind took its toll, and she briefly quit the music scene, found God, and became a Catholic. Buoyed by her new-found spiritual fortification, she returned to jazz in 1957, when lifelong friend Dizzy Gillespie, who enjoyed a minor bebop hit with Williams, “In the Land of Oh Bla Dee,” got her to play with his big-band at the Newport Jazz Festival. In the Sixties, she composed a number of inventive and evocative religious-themed jazz works including Mary Lou’s Mass, which was commissioned by the Vatican and choreographed by Alvin Ailey.
Williams’ devotion to God and the groove can be summed up in a quote from her 1964 album, Mary Lou Williams Presents The Black Christ of the Andes, dedicated to St. Martin de Porres, the Black saint of Peru.
By the 1970's, Williams started to receive her long-overdue recognition as a jazz original. "My students," she said in an interview with writer Catherine O’Neill, "are great kids. They're looking for love, and that's what's in the music I'm teaching. Jazz has healing in it, and a lot of love." She was the first guest on Marian McPartland’s influential "Piano Jazz" radio show, and was an artist-in-residence at Duke University, from 1977 until her death from cancer in 1981.
With over three hundred and fifty compositions to her credit, Mary Lou Williams’ imprint on jazz is eternal. She leveled to playing field of the mostly-male bandstand, and today, the successful careers of musicians like Geri Allen, Teri Lynne Carrington, Tia Fuller and Esperanza Spalding are the greatest fruits of her overlooked labors of love and swing.
“Only out of suffering,” she says in Linda Dahl’s biography, “is a true thing born.”