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.
Early Life and Career
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.
Swing and Bebop Years
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.
Evolving Music and Career
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. Four years later, it became the first jazz piece to be performed at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Williams still continued to perform, including at President Jimmy Carter's White House Jazz Party. She also taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Duke University.
Death and Legacy
Williams was 71 when she succumbed to bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina, on May 28, 1981. She left behind more than 350 compositions. Though she is known for being one of the first women to succeed in jazz, she had a career whose accomplishments place her in the top echelon of musicians.
Her legacy includes the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, which she established shortly before her death. The foundation helps children and young adults learn about jazz. The Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival and Duke University's Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture were also both set up in her honor.
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