Mary Lou Williams Day
May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981
Mary Lou plays the Blues
We have an in depth interview about Mary Lou Williams’ life and work here: The Lady who Swings the Blues
Pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs) was born May 8, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia.
One of the great under-heralded masters of American music, she recorded prolifically and her compositions and arrangements were sought after by the likes of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
But that’s not all.
Beyond her substantial achievements as a pianist and arranger/composer, her biggest contribution may well have been the young musicians she befriended, helped and shared her harmony insights with.
Her theory students included Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and many others.
Truly, the birthplace of bebop was Minton’s, Birdland, and around the piano at Mary Lou Williams apartment.
After touring on the Orpheum Circuit in 1925 she began performing with Duke Ellington’s early band “The Washingtonians.”
In 1927 she married saxophonist John Williams an spent the next two years based in Memphis playing with his “Syncopators” before her husband left her in charge of the group, accepting an invitation to join Andy Kirks “Clouds Of Joy” in Oklahoma City.
She frequently played solo gigs and did freelance arranging for bandleaders Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. After she left the Kirk band in 1942, she returned to Pittsburgh where she worked with a six piece ensemble for a time, including Harold “Shorty” Baker and Art Blakey.
By 1945 she was performing regularly at New York’s Café Society Downtown, and hosting her own weekly radio program on WNEW “Mary Lou Williams’s Piano Workshop.” During this period she would begin to serve as a mentor to younger bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
Mary Lou went on an extended tour of Europe for two years beginning in 1952 and in 1956 after which a religious conversion to Catholicism began to perform more gospel referring to herself as a soul artist.
In 1977 she accepted a position teaching the History of Jazz at Duke University in addition to directing the “Duke Jazz Ensemble”, where she remained an artist in residence until her death in 1981. She made many concert appearances during her final years and performed at the White House in 1978.