Mary Lou Williams was born in Atlanta, Ga. on May 8, 1910. Her family
moved to Pittsburgh when she was about five years old and by the time
she was six, she was already a "professional," playing piano at parties for
a dollar an hour. By the time she was 12, Mary Lou was playing gigs with
Pittsburgh union bands and working the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking
Association) vaudeville circuit, the Gus Sun circuit and the B.F. Keith
and Orpheum circuits with the act Seymour and Jeanette. She would also sit
in occasionally with Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians.
After marrying alto and baritone saxophonist John Williams in 1927, she
would regularly sit in with his Memphis-based band The Syncopators.
When John moved to Oklahoma City, Mary Lou stayed in Memphis, taking over
leadership of the band, which occasionally featured the future great,
Jimmy Lunceford. In 1929, she moved to Kansas City to join Andy Kirk’s band.
In addition to her musical contributions, she would also handle a variety
of other responsibilities, from driving the band’s bus to sewing clothes.
By 1931, she’d become the band’s official pianist and chief arranger and
would remain so until 1941. During those same years, Mary Lou also
arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, along with many other
Swing era bands, including Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Cab Calloway and the
Upon leaving Kirk, she formed her own band which included Art Blakey and
her second husband, trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker. Parts of her 1945
12-part Zodiac Suite were scored for the New York Philharmonic one year
later and Mary Lou was featured on piano for its Carnegie Hall
performance. She was quickly becoming one of the most respected Jazz composers,
writing over 350 compositions during her 50+ years in Jazz.
Throughout all the various circumstances of her career, Mary Lou was
always viewed as a modernist. Transcending gender barriers, she was
not only a pioneering inspiration to future women artists, but to many of
the major proponents of the Bebop era. Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk,
Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell were just some of the greats who made
Mary Lou’s New York residence their central office.
A headliner on the club and concert circuits in both the U.S. and
Europe, she moved abroad in the early ‘50s and returned to New York in 1955,
dropping out of the music scene to immerse herself in Catholicism and
focus on composing Sacred music, which remained a primary interest for the
rest of her life. Returning to peforming in the ‘60s, she founded the
Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in 1964, serving as its director for three
By the 1970s, Mary Lou began to receive the honors that her pioneering
efforts as both musician and activist entitled her. Recognition of her
contribution to the world of music came in the form of honorary degrees
from Fordham, Boston and Loyola Universities and Manhattan, Bates and
Rockhurst colleges, as well as two Guggenheim Fellowships. In 1973 a
street was named in her honor in Kansas City. She was the featured
performer at the International Premiere Concert of the Women’s Jazz
Festival in March 1978. In the same year, she was a featured performer
at President Jimmy Carter’s White House Jazz Party. She founded and served
as President of the Bel Canto Foundation for needy musicians as well as the
general poor and young children, and she started the New Reform
Foundation for gifted children between the ages of 6 and 12. She conducted musical
workshops in storefronts and on the streets of Harlem.
One of the few artists who successfully made the transitions through
every change that confronted the Jazz form, her late ‘70s duets with
avant-garde piano giant Cecil Taylor proved her continued innovative and adventurous
vision. From 1977 until her death in 1981, she was artist-in-residence
at Duke University.
No higher tribute can be made than that of the one and only Duke
Ellington who once proclaimed:
"Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and
performing are and have always been just a little ahead and throughout her
career...her music retains--and maintains--a standard of quality that is
timeless. She is like soul on soul."