Mary Lou Williams :: Biography

Mary Lou Williams has long been regarded as the only significant female musician in Jazz, but as a pianist, composer, and arranger, her contributions to the music are great regardless of her gender. She is the only major Jazz artist who lived and played through all the eras in the history of Jazz, and many historians and critics have referred to her as, "The History of Jazz." She constantly was able to change and develop the way that she played as Jazz continued to develop and grow. In fact, Duke Ellington once said, "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are, and always have been, just a little ahead...throughout her career...her music retains - and maintains - a standard quality that is timeless."

Her Early Life

Later, she began touring with a Vaudeville review known as the "Hits and Bits." By the time she was in her early teens, she was a touring professional. In fact, she once said, "I didn't even know I was touring. I was just having a ball, playing the piano. The best time of my life." In 1926, at the age of 16, she toured on the Keith Orpheum Circuit with Seymore and Jeanette. It was here that she met her future husband, John Williams, who was in charge of providing the music for the show as part of the John Williams Syncopators with Mary Lou Williams on piano.

Her Middle Years: The Swing & BeBop Eras

Soon after, she began arranging and playing the piano for Andy Kirk and his jazz band. In 1930, she became a full member with The Twelve Clouds of Joy and recorded her first solo jazz record. During the 1930's, she was key to the success of Kirk's band. Some examples of her contributions to the band include such notable pieces as "Mess-a-Stomp," "Froggy Bottom." "Walkin' and Swingin," and "Little Joe From Chicago." This last piece became a great example of the improvisation that defines Jazz. Additionally, Williams is credited as a major influence in leading to a whole new style of playing the piano. This style was known as the Kansas City style, and she often called it the "era of the strong left hand." During her time with Kirk's band, Williams also arranged music for many notable jazz performers, including Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. Two of her more notable pieces arranged for Goodman include "Camel Hop" and "Roll 'Em."

In the early 1940s, Williams left Kirk's band and moved to New York City, where she met and married her second husband, Harold "Shorty" Baker, the first trumpeter in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. During this time period of the mid 1940s, Jazz was also undergoing a change from Swing to the BeBop Era. New York City provided the perfect environment for Williams to change with the times. She could often be seen with some of the younger New York musicians such as, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie, who were influencing the changes in Jazz at the time. One of her most popular works during this period was "Trumpets No End." This song was recorded by Duke Ellington in 1946.

During this period, her composing also began to gain notoriety with the twelve-movement Zodiac Suite, which made an effort to translate the personalities of people into jazz tunes. Williams accomplished this by varying the mood of each track on the album from boogie-woogie and blues to impressionism and early bop. Her goal was to have each track express the nature of the zodiac sign it represented. In 1946, Williams performed this work on piano at Carnegie Hall. This piece was also the first by a jazz composer to be performed by a symphony orchestra.

Her Later Years: Religious Conversion & Teaching at Duke University

In 1952, Williams left New York for Europe. During this time, she put her career in Jazz on hold and converted to Roman Catholicism. She remained away from the Jazz scene until 1957, when she returned by performing with Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Festival. Over the next few years, she continued to contribute to Jazz by recording and composing sacred pieces that were a result of her religious conversion. Two examples of her Jazz spirituals were "Black Christ of the Andes (1963)" and "Mary Lou's Mass (1970)."

In 1977, Williams came to Duke University as a professor of Jazz. She taught here until her death from cancer on May 28, 1981 at the age of 71. On September 24, 1983, the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was dedicated at Duke University in her memory. She is remembered as a remarkable Jazz musician-- one who contributed greatly to the music throughout all of its historical eras.


Durgesh Kudchadkar, Duke University


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