- NAME: Mary Lou Williams
- OCCUPATION: Educator, Songwriter, Pianist
- BIRTH DATE: May 08, 1910
- DEATH DATE: May 28, 1981
- PLACE OF BIRTH: Atlanta, Georgia
- PLACE OF DEATH: Durham, North Carolina
- Maiden Name: Mary Elfrieda Scruggs
- Nickname: Little Piano Girl
- Full Name: Mary Lou Williams
- AKA: Mary Lou Burley
Best Known For
Pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams had a career that started in the 1920s and spanned decades. Her output included swing, bebop and sacred music.
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Pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams was born on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia. A musical prodigy, she began performing as a child. Throughout her career, she adapted to changing musical styles, working in swing, blues and bebop. She also added sacred music to her repertoire after undergoing a spiritual conversion. Williams died on May 28, 1981, at age 71, in Durham, North Carolina.
"Around Pittsburgh, I played for many wealthy families, the Mellons in particular. I was just a kid. They were wonderful! They'd send a chauffeur out for me and I'd play for their private parties. Once they gave me $100. My mother almost fainted. She wanted to know if the lady drank. She even called the people to see if they had made a mistake."
"I'm the only living musician that has played all the eras. Other musicians lived through the eras and they never changed their styles."
"When I'm playing, it seems as though someone else takes over. What I play comes from God, and I write it for the benefit of other people."
"I have been tied up with music for about as long as I can remember."
"No one can put a style on me. I've learned from many people. I change all the time. I experiment to keep up with what is going on, to hear what everybody else is doing. I even keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next."
"Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul."
Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was born on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Scruggs was a small child, she surprised her mother by playing a song she had just heard on the family's pump organ. Trained by her mother, and aided by her gift of perfect pitch, she was playing professionally by the age of seven.
Appearing as Mary Lou Burley (her stepfather's last name), she worked in locations that ranged from gambling dens to the vaudeville stage. As a teenager, she started performing with saxophonist John Williams. The two married in 1927, thus making her Mary Lou Williams. A few years later, Williams followed her husband to Kansas City, where she would become an integral part of the swing scene.
Though relegated to menial tasks at first, Mary Lou Williams began performing with the Clouds of Joy, a Kansas City band led by Andy Kirk. In addition to being the group's pianist throughout the 1930s, she also composed and arranged much of its music. Her success with the Clouds of Joy meant Williams was soon sending compositions and arrangements to bandleaders such as Tommy Dorsey, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.
In 1942, Williams left Kirk's band. When her second marriage to trumpeter Shorty Baker ended, she settled in New York City. There, she performed at a Greenwich Village nightclub and on a weekly radio show. Her Harlem apartment became a gathering place for musicians, and was where Williams mentored talents like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
During her time in New York, Williams demonstrated her musical adaptability. Not only did she incorporate bebop into her playing, she created longer pieces such as the Zodiac Suite. Three movements of this 12-part composition were performed at Carnegie Hall in 1946. In 1952, Williams relocated to Europe, where she remained until she walked out of a performance in Paris in 1954.
Even after Williams returned to the United States, she refrained from performing, as she felt that her spiritual needs were incompatible with the world of jazz. However, she eventually found solace in Catholicism. In 1957, she resumed her musical career by appearing with Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Williams founded her own label, Mary Records, which was the first to be started by a woman. She also established the Cecilia Music Publishing Company. Given her newfound Catholic faith, Williams began to work on sacred pieces, composing several masses. One of these was Mary Lou's Mass (originally called Music for Peace).
In 1971, Mary Lou's Mass was interpreted by choreographer Alvin Ailey.
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