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Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981) was an American jazz stride pianist, composer, and arranger. Williams had written hundreds of compositions or arrangements, and recorded over a hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions). Williams wrote and arranged for such greats as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. She displayed remarkable versatility and power, and is probably the most influential woman in the history of jazz.
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Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia, she grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of eleven children. As a very young child she taught herself to play the piano (her first public performance was at the age of six). She became a professional musician in her teens. She cites Lovie Austin as her greatest influence. At age six Williams was already helping to support her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing for parties. She began performing publicly at the age of seven, when she became known admiringly in her native Pittsburgh as "the little piano girl of East Liberty." In 1924, age 14 she was taken on the Orpheum Circuit. The following year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. One high and learned salute to her talent came when she was only 15. One morning at 3 she was jamming with McKinney's Cotton Pickers at Harlem's Rhythm Club. The great Louis Armstrong entered the room and paused to listen to her. Mary Lou shyly tells what presently happened: "Louis picked me up and kissed me."
In 1927 Williams married saxophonist John Williams. She met him at a performance in Cleveland where he was leading his group, the Syncopators, 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 19-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. She provided Kirk with such songs as "Walkin' and Swingin'," "Twinklin'," "Cloudy'," and "Little Joe from Chicago".
During the winter of 1930 and 1931 Williams traveled to Chicago to cut her first solo record, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life," for Brunswick Records. 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. 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. In 1937 she produced In the Groove (Brunswick), a collaboration with Dick Wilson, and Benny Goodman ask Mary to write a blues for his band. The result was "Roll 'Em, which followed her successful "Camel Hop," Goodman's theme song for his radio show sponsored by Camel cigarettes. "Roll 'Em" is a boogie-woogie piece based on the blues. Goodman tried to put Williams under contract to write for him exclusively, but she refused; she preferred to freelance. Williams had become one of the most sought-after composers of the Swing Era. In 1942, Williams, who had divorced her husband, left the "Twelve Clouds of Joy" band, 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 "Trumpets No End" (1946), her version of Irving Berlin's "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. In 1945 Williams composed the bebop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Dizzy 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. 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 1945, on Folkways label, with bassist Al Lucas and drummer Jack "The Bear" Parker, and 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. 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 became her close friend and personal manager in the 1960's. Together they found new venues for jazz performance at a time when no more than two clubs in Manhattan had jazz full-time. In addition to club work Mary played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and made television appearances. Throughout the 1960's her composing focused on sacred music - hymns and masses. One of the masses, Music for Peace, was choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as “Mary Lou's Mass”. She performed the revision of "Mary Lou's Mass" on the television, The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.
She wrote and performed religious jazz music like 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 Mary put much effort into working with youth choirs to perform her works, including mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York 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. Mary Lou thought 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. She played at the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival in 1965, with the jazz festival singers Saint Martin de Porres. "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."
Throughout the 1970's her career flourished, including numerous albums, including as solo pianist and commentator recorded The History of Jazz. She returned to the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1971. Had two-piano performance with pianist Cecil Taylor, Carnegie Hall, 1977. She accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence (from 1977 to 1981), co-teaching the History of Jazz with Father Peter O'Brien. 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 "The Salute To Jazz" concert, hosted by President Jimmy Carter, she played "Somewhere over the Rainbow." Was a star at Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 1978.
Her final recording Solo Recital (Montreux Jazz Festival [ - Live), performed three years before her death, gives one a strong retrospective of her career. This solo concert has 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 songs include "Medley: "The Lord Is Heavy", Old Fashion Blues", "Over the Rainbow", "Offertory Meditation", "Tea for Two", "Concerto Alone at Montreux", "Man I Love", "What's Your Story", "Morning Glory?", and "Honeysuckle Rose".
Mary Lou Williams died of cancer in Durham, North Carolina. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery, in a peaceful hilly section of Pittsburgh. As Mary Lou Williams said, looking back at the end of her life, "I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud."