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Mary Lou Williams - A Black Female American Jazz Pianist

Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was one of the most accomplished American jazz artists of the 20th century - a composer, arranger, and pianist whose music traverses across the stylistic background of jazz. She had recorded over a hundred compositions and had crafted hundreds of arrangements for the piano.

Early Life

Mary was born on the 8th of May, 1910, as the second of eleven Scruggs children in Atlanta, Georgia. She was considered a musical prodigy from the mere age of three after she managed to learn piano on her own. It was borne out of necessity, a strategy she adopted to stop her white neighbors from showering her house with bricks. Within a couple of years, she was earning and supporting her brothers and sisters by performing at various parties. Soon, she received the moniker “The Little Piano Girl” and became a professional pianist by the age of fifteen.

Musical Journey

Mary Lou Williams at a piano

In 1922, she started performing at the Orpheum Circuit of theaters and subsequently joined the band “The Washingtonians,” playing with Duke Ellington. In 1927, she met the leader of a musical group named ‘Syncopators” - the saxophonist John Overton Williams. They connected instantly and tied the knot. A new band named “Memphis” was created with Mary on piano. Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, now Mary Williams, soon took over the band when John left for another group in Oklahoma. This band, named “Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy,” then successfully appointed Williams as the composer and composer. She dished out compositions like - “Mary's Idea,” “Roll Em,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” ‘Walkin' and Swingin,” and “Froggy Bottom.” Soon, trips to New York City, Chicago, and Kansas were arranged. In the Chicago tour, Jack Kapp of Brunswick Records suggested her the name “Mary Lou.” The records became highly successful, offering her national eminence.

In 1937, she collaborated with Dick Wilson to produce “Groove.” In 1942, John and Mary parted ways. Mary subsequently left the band and returned to Pittsburgh. Harold ‘Shorty’ Baker joined her to start a six-piece ensemble. The couple soon joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra and tied the knot shortly. Williams arranged several compositions for her spouse, including her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” - titled “Trumpet No End.” However, their courtship ended prematurely, as Williams again moved to New York City.

Within a year, she left Baker and the group and returned to New York. She started working at a local Café and further started her weekly radio program titled ‘Mary Lou Williams' Piano Workshop.” She also mentored and started working with young bebop musicians like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. She even composed a bebop number “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” for the latter. In 1945, she crafted the famous “Zodiac Suite” - a classical project where all twelve parts proportionate with the zodiac signs. She dedicated it to her friends in the musical fraternity.

In 1952, Williams decided to explore the avenues beyond the Atlantic and accepted several offers from Europe. However, the two years spent there took quite a toll, both mentally and physically. She returned to America in 1954 and took a sabbatical. She converted to Catholicism and started devoting her time and energy towards helping addicted musicians through the Bel Canto Foundation. After some time, the resident bishops convinced her to start playing music again, which motivated her enough to join Dizzy Gillespie’s band. She started playing at college programs, clubs and even started her publishing and record label. She went on to establish the  Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, and the fame earned her several television appearances. She mainly concentrated on masses, hymns, and other sacred music during this period.

In 1963, she marked her comeback with the piece “Black Christ of the Andes,” a mass for communion. She also composed a hymn honoring St. Martin de Porres, a Peruvian saint, and followed it with two short works titled “Praise the Lord” and “Anima Christi.” She also performed with several youth choirs, including a famous performance of her “Mary Lou’s Mass” at the local St. Patrick's Cathedral. It was the first instance where a jazz musician had performed at the church. She further set up multiple charitable organizations across Harlem for underprivileged musicians. Her career flourished in the following decade as she recorded numerous albums and continued offering stellar performances on-stage. She collaborated successfully with Cecil Taylor, despite having differences. The duo released their live album titled “Embraced.”

Mary Williams also taught jazz to school children and was subsequently appointed as “artist-in-residence” at the famous Duke University for 4 years. In 1978, she staged a special performance for President Jimmy Carter at the White House. She also completed her final recoding in that calendar year, titled “Solo Recital” - a mixture of swing music, blues, ragtime, and spirituals. She also crafted her renditions of famous melodies like - “Over the Rainbow,” “What's Your Story Morning Glory,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” and “Tea for Two.” She passed away on the 28th of May, 1981, after suffering from a bout of bladder cancer.

Usage In Popular Culture

In 1983, the “Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture” was established by Duke University in North Carolina. Her legacy in jazz is well profound, and her music has spread its roots all across popular culture. Her work is preserved as archives at the “Institute of Jazz Studies,” - a part of the Rutgers University in Newark. The Lincoln Elementary School has a “Pennsylvania State Historic Marker” placed on its premises for noting the accomplishments of this celebrated pianist, which is also her alma mater.

  • An annual “Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival” is held at The Kennedy Center in the capital of Washington, D.C., since 1996.  
  • In 2000, original arrangements from William’s music were featured in the album titled “Soul on Soul,” a tribute by trumpeter Dave Douglas. 
  • In 2000, pianist John Hicks used eight compositions of Mary Lou in his album titled “Impressions of Mary Lou.”
  • In 2005, The Dutch Jazz Orchestra heavily featured her compositions in their album titled - “Lady Who Swings the Band.” They mainly focused on her rediscovered works. 
  • In 2006, the musical group “Mary Lou Williams Collective” launched their first album, which was titled - “Zodiac Suite: Revisited.”
  • In 2010, Sarah Bruce Kelly published a historical novel titled “Jazz Girl,” which was based on Williams and covered her initial years.  
  • In 2010, Maryann MacDonald and Ann Ingalls collaborated to publish the children’s book titled “The Little Piano Girl.” Giselle Potter crafted the illustrations of this work which was also based on Mary Lou Williams.  
  • In 2013, Yona Harvey crafted the poem “Communion with Mary Lou Williams” after garnering inspiration from Mary’s compositions. The piece was published in her book “Hemming the Water.” 
  • Later in 2013, a compilation of the composer’s big band scores titled - “Mary Lou Williams: Selected Works” was published by the American Musicological Society.
  • In 2015, Carol Bash directed and produced a documentary titled “Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band.” The award-winning feature premiered on American Public Television and was further screened at various film festivals.
  • In 2018, Carol Bash was part of an expert panel on a podcast episode titled “THE MUSICIAN Mary Lou Williams.” The podcast was an initiative by What'sHerName.  
  • She is one of the few jazz stars to have a street named after her in Kansas City, Missouri - the Mary Lou Williams Lane. 
  • Mary was also one of the three women who featured in the famous black and white photo-op of 57 Jazz greats. The photograph was titled “A Great Day in Harlem.”

A Star is Born

Mary Lou Williams utilized jazz as her tool of expression, an extensive and powerful medium where she could act as a necessary and pivotal symbol for colored people - conveying and communicating the complexities they faced at every juncture of their lives. She accurately depicted the suffering and yielding that resulted in the historic black music traditions. She explored the rise of soul and rock music, further concentrating on the recording industry's lack of appreciation towards black art. She also took on the fallacies of music critics, especially the expedient and jealous characters who dominated the scene. 

She was revered and adored by her contemporaries and also musicians who have witnessed and still witnessing her artistic excellence and endurance. Mary was an exemplary storyteller who depicted her pursuits, her challenges, and her passions through her compositions. Her work evokes her artistic prowess, offering a colloquial commentary of life through her eyes. This is a woman who remarkably reveals at every turn of life, her astute belief in the beauty of black music. She used the piano as her choice of weapon against the brutal and sometimes volatile backdrop of society back then. Her reflections offer a thrilling account of her own resourcefulness and resilience as a black female musician, one that is also enriched by her lexicon of love.

Her joyful spirit and musical overtones of both gospel and jazz offer its very own exaltation. There’s a special ecstasy depicting the journey of life along with a pinch of humor - speaking volume of William’s undeniable artistry. Her impact was evident on the swing era's dance bands, which increasingly started exploring bold avenues with each successful performance. Her magic was sustained through her capacity to transcribe jazz sounds - the mild swings, the subtle dissonances, she was an instant star among the jazz circle. Her work on swing and jazz is the perfect illustration of her actual sphere of influence, which was equally wide and powerful to render creative resilience against patriarchy and racism. She was the resistance. A star was born.


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