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."