She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in 1910 in Atlanta, one of 11 children, the family moved to Pittsburgh, PA when Mary was still a toddler. A child prodigy, she taught herself to play piano and by the age of 6 was helping to support her family by playing at parties. She was a veteran performer by her teens but when she married saxophonist John Williams in 1927, she was only occasionally allowed to play with his band. To make ends meet she transported bodies for the local undertaker. Mary followed her husband to Kansas City, where she would become an integral part of the swing scene. Mary Lou Williams began performing with Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy. In addition to being the group’s pianist throughout the 1930s, she also composed and arranged much of its music earning the respect of her peers and having a song written for her; The Lady Who Swings the Band.
It wasn’t long, however, before talk of her musical genius began to circulate in the jazz world, and she soon found herself composing and arranging for the likes of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorset, Earl Hines and Benny Goodman. In fact, Goodman was so impressed with her talent that he offered her an exclusive contract, but Williams preferred the world of freelancing and turned the music icon down.
Over the years, she recorded more than 100 records – primarily swing and black gospel – and performed her own band, Mary Lou Williams and the Kansas City Seven. In the 1940s, she was offered a radio program on WNEW called “Mary Lou Williams’ Piano Workshop” and it was here that she began to mentor the next generation of jazz musicians; up-and-comers like Thelonious Monk, Mikes Davis, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, many of whom remained her friends for life. In 1956 she converted to Catholicism and this spiritual shift was reflected in her music and her life. She founded the Bel Canto Foundation to help addicted musicians and opened a Harlem thrift store for musicians in need. Mixing jazz and religion, she staged a performance for 3,000 at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy Gillespie, joined Benny Goodman onstage for his 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, performed at the White House and founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. Never one to slow down, she went on to teach at Duke University, making a mark as both an educator and a humanitarian.
It is no surprise that Williams, who died in 1981, is remembered for her music and more. The 2013 American Musicology Society recently published a compilation of Works for Big Bands, with 11 of her band scores included. Her childhood story was the basis for a children’s book published in 2010, “The Little Piano Girl, “the Kennedy Center holds an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival and Duke established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. Cleary, this piano prodigy grew up to leave her mark on the world at a time in history when the odds were decidedly against her. Her music, her intellect and her faith made Mary Lou Williams an inspiration more than a century ago, but her story – and her music — still resonate today.
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