Imagine a pianist playing concerts with Benny Goodman and Cecil Taylor in successive years (1977-78). That pianist was Mary Lou Williams. In a career which spanned over fifty years Mary was always on the cutting edge.
She was born Mary Scruggs in 1910 Atlanta. Her mother was a single parent who worked as a domestic and played spirituals and ragtime on piano and organ. At age three Mary shocked her by reaching up from her mother's lap to pick out a tune on the keyboard. Rather than hiring a teacher (for fear the child would lose the ability to improvise) Mary's mother invited professional musicians to their home. By watching, listening and heeding their advice, Mary learned well, especially the importance of a strong left hand. By age six, dubbed "The Little Piano Girl of East Liberty," she was playing for money around her new home of Pittsburgh, Pa. Her early years included listening to piano rolls of James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith, records of Jelly Roll Morton and seeing Earl Hines play at youth dances. At age twelve she went on the road during school vacations with a vaudeville show. Three years later she quit high school to join the very successful vaudeville team Seymour and Jeanette. Here she met saxophonist John Williams, whom she married at sixteen. When John got the call to join Terrence Holder's band in Oklahoma, Mary took charge of his band, the Synco-Jazzers, in Memphis (Jimmie Lunceford was a member).
By the time Mary joined John out West, Holder was out and Andy Kirk had become the leader of the Twelve Clouds of Joy. Because the band already had a pianist, Mary just filled in. By day, however, she was feeding tunes and arranging ideas to Kirk (at this point she had little knowledge of theory or notation). She soon tired of this process and began writing arrangments herself, influenced by the style of Don Redman. Contrary to Kirk's advice she wrote sixth chords and unlike most arrangers of the time combined instruments from different sections. Ultimately she would become the band's full-time pianist, primary soloist and arranger. During the '30's she also wrote arrangements for Goodman (Roll 'Em, Camel Hop), Lunceford (What's Your Story, Morning Glory?), the Dorseys, Casa Loma, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and others.
Kirk's band was a scuffling territory band in its early days. But the band was based in a place Mary called "a heavenly city," Kansas City. With fifty clubs and a political machine tied to bootlegging and gambling interests, the city was nearly Depression-proof for jazz musicians. The best musicians from the Southwest and Midwest flocked there and many nationally-known musicians stopped there to jam while on tour (this is depicted in Robert Altman's movie "Kansas City," with pianist Geri Allen playing the part of Mary Lou). Mary participated in the jams often, including the famous night when Coleman Hawkins tried to cut the local tenor men, including Ben Webster, Lester Young and Herschel Evans.
The Kirk band became nationally prominent after a 1936 Decca recording. Mary stayed another six years, at which point she was tired of touring and pay inequities. David Baker has said "Particularly given those years, 1929-42, it was almost without precedence to have a female in the band who wasn't a singer and secondarily for that female to virtually all the musical decisions in her hands. Mary Lou Williams had the enviable position of being the person who shaped virtually the entire history of a band." Of her piano prowess in Kansas City, Count Basie said "Anytime she was in the neighborhood I used to find myself another little territory, because Mary Lou was tearin' everybody up." Saxophonist Buddy Tate seconded this in Joanne Burke's documentary on Mary Lou when he said "She was outplaying all those men. She didn't think so but they thought so."
Mary returned to Pittsburgh, uncertain whether she'd keep performing. Local drummer Art Blakey, then 18, convinced her to put together a band, including second husband Harold "Shorty" Baker. Six months later she and Baker joined Duke Ellington's orchestra, Mary as staff arranger. Her most prominent arrangement, "Trumpets No End," based on "Blue Skies," was recorded in 1946. After six months she left Duke and Baker, moving to New York City. Thus began a rich, productive period as a performer and composer. She played long-standing gigs at Cafe Society, had her own radio show on WNEW, composed "Zodiac Suite," which was performed by a summer orchestra of the New York Philharmonic, and recorded with a trio. Her tiny apartment in Harlem became a headquarters where the pioneers of modern jazz, among them Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Tadd Dameron, gathered to share ideas, compose, listen to records and get advice from their new mentor, Mary Lou. Unlike most of her peers, Mary loved what the "boppers" were doing. Among her contributions to the modern jazz movement were the tune and arrangement "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee," which Dizzy's big band recorded, and a couple of tunes she convinced Benny Goodman to record with his brief bop-oriented small group.
A nine-day job in England in 1952 stretched into two years performing throughout Western Europe. She was an immense hit in Paris. One night, however, she walked off the stage in a state of emotional collapse, spending the following months in the countryside resting and praying. Upon returning to the States her performance activities were limited. Her energies were devoted mainly to the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she initiated to help addicted musicians return to performing. In support of this effort she ran two thrift stores. She and Dizzy's wife Lorraine converted together to Catholicism. Two priests and Dizzy convinced her to return to playing, which she did at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with Dizzy's band. 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." 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. 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 1970's her career flourished, including numerous albums. In 1977 she accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence, co-teaching the History of Jazz with Fr. O'Brien. With a light teaching schedule, she also did many concert and festival appearances, conducted clinics with youth and performed at the White House concert hosted by President Carter. While she was hospitalized with cancer in 1981, she received Duke's Trinity Award for service to the university. She died in May of that year.
Beyond her numerous recordings, compositions (approx. 350) and arrangements, her legacy lives on in many ways. There's Joanne Burke's 1989 film "Music on My Mind." She is featured in the 1994 documentary "A Great Day in Harlem." The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has an annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival in May. Linda Dahl, author of the book Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen
, has recently completed a biography of Mary Lou to be published this year. The Mary Lou Williams Foundation, to which she bequeathed most of her assets, continues pairing young musicians ages six to twelve with professionals. Her archives are preserved at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark.
Mary Lou proudly proclaimed "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" Or as Duke Ellington expressed it, "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary."