Pianist, composer, and arranger Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) is often referred to as the First Lady of Jazz in the annals of American music history. Williams was a highly respected musician in her day whose repertoire spanned several seminal jazz styles, from boogie-woogie to bebop, and she was an integral member of what became known as the Kansas City big-band sound during the 1930s. In her later years she wrote jazz-inflected liturgical works for Roman Catholic masses and taught at Duke University. Williams, remarked Denver Post writer Glenn Giffin, "was the first, for a long time the only, and many claim the most significant, woman in jazz between the era of the '20s and her death in 1981."
Williams was born on May 10, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia, as Mary Elfreda Winn. She did not meet her biological father until she was in her twenties, and her early years were rough. Her mother was a drinker and took in laundry to support Williams and an older sister. Her mother also liked to play the reed organ and kept the infant Williams on her lap when she practiced. According to an unpublished biography, Williams recalled that one day, she reportedly reached out and picked out the notes her mother had just played. "I must have frightened her so that she dropped me then and there, and I started to cry," she recalled, according to an article in World and I by David Conrads. "It must have really shaken my mother. She actually dropped me and ran out to get the neighbors to listen to me."
Soon Williams was playing by ear the African American slave spirituals and ragtime that her mother knew, and her mother "wouldn't consent to my having music lessons, for she feared I might end up as she had done—unable to play except from paper," Williams later recalled in a 1954 Melody Maker interview. Around 1914 or 1915, the family moved to Pittsburgh, which offered a thriving musical environment in its African American community. Around the East Liberty neighborhood where they lived, Williams soon emerged as a child musical prodigy, with perfect pitch and a remarkable musical memory. Her new stepfather, Fletcher Burley, bought a player piano for the home, and here Williams first learned the works of Jelly Roll Morton and other early jazz pioneers. "As a stepfather he was the greatest," Williams later said of Burley in the Melody Maker interview, "and he loved the blues. Fletcher taught me the first blues I ever knew by singing them over and over to me." Burley also smuggled the young Williams into the bars where he liked to gamble, and she sometimes earned $20 in tips by playing the piano there.
Williams was soon known around all of Pittsburgh as "The Little Piano Girl" and once even played for a party at the home of the city's leading family, the Mellons. She made her formal debut with a band in 1922 at the age of 12, when an African American vaudeville review came to town and one of its musicians fell ill. Managers learned of William's prowess, and impresario "Buzzin" Harris visited the home—Williams recalls that she was playing hopscotch outside that day—and convinced her parents to let her tour with them. Her mother found a friend to go along to chaperone her, and Williams earned a lucrative $30 a week for gigs that took her to Detroit, Chicago, Cincinnati, and as far west as St. Louis.
Williams left Pittsburgh's Westinghouse High School in 1926 at the age of 16 and joined the Seymour and Jeanette Show, another popular black vaudeville act. That same year she married its bandleader, John Williams, who was also a talented saxophone player. She made her first recordings accompanying him on the piano as part of the "John Williams Synco Jazzers" for the Paramount, Gennett, and Champion labels. A woman playing with a jazz act was a relative rarity at the time and word of Williams's talents soon spread to New York City. On tour stops there, she met and played for such greats as Morton and Fats Waller and once even sat in with Duke Ellington's Washingtonians at the Lincoln Theater for a week-long engagement.
For a time in the late 1920s Williams lived in Memphis, her husband's home town, but soon followed him out to Oklahoma City when he was offered a new gig. That band became Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy, and Williams soon joined it herself as its second pianist. Taking the act and settling in Kansas City, Kirk pioneered the new blues-based style of jazz that became synonymous with the booming and somewhat lawless Plains town, rich from newly discovered oil in the region. It was a lively scene, even when Prohibition was still in force. "Kansas City in the Thirties was jumping harder than ever," Williams recalled in the Melody Maker interview. "The 'Heart of America' was at that time one of the nerve centres of jazz, and I could write about it for a month and never do justice to the half of it… . Of course, we didn't have any closing hours in these spots. We could play all morning and half through the day if we wished to, and in fact we often did. The music was so good that I seldom got to bed before midday."
It was Kirk who helped Williams with some of her first forays into formal musical notation when she began arranging songs for his band. She quickly grew tired of having Kirk transcribe what she wanted and began to learn to notate herself. In Kansas City, Kirk's Twelve Clouds enjoyed tremendous success, fueled in part by Williams's arrangements and her compelling piano solos. She was also somewhat of a novelty, she admitted in a 1979 interview with Books & Arts writer Catherine O'Neill, for there were few women in jazz in the day except for vocalists. "In St. Louis once, I was sitting on the stand waiting for the band to come in, and I heard someone say, 'Get that little girl off the stage so the band can start up.' But I just stayed there, and when the band came in and I started playing, the house went into an uproar, cheering and laughing."
Williams cut her first solo record in Chicago in 1930, with two of her own compositions, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life." She was never paid for them, however, and later had to threaten a lawsuit to have them taken off the market. For the rest of the decade she attained widespread recognition and was in great demand as both a pianist and an arranger. She arranged songs for Ellington, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Louis Armstrong, Tommie Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Cab Calloway, among others. Her best-known works remain "Camel Hop" and "Roll 'Em" for Goodman and "What's Your Story Morning Glory," a song that helped make her longtime friend Jimmie Lunceford's band a success.
Williams divorced her husband in 1940 and remained with the Kirk band until 1942. By then, a new style of jazz called bebop was emerging in New York City, and Williams headed there. She came to know its principals—Charlie "Bird" Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk—and many liked to gather in her Harlem apartment for impromptu sessions. Drummer Art Blakey encouraged her to form her own combo, which she did with the man who would become her second husband, trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker. It was a short-lived union, however, and the combo was as well. She signed on with Ellington's band as its arranger, and the highlight of this period of her career was her arrangement of "Blue Skies (Trumpet No End)," a classic Ellington song from 1946.
In 1943, Williams began a regular engagement at the Café Society in Greenwich Village, New York City's first racially integrated jazz club. The nightspot was such a success that a second venue soon opened uptown, and Williams played there after 1948, to crowds that often included prominent artists, writers, and film stars of the day. In 1946 her first large-scale composition, Zodiac Suite, made its debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Each of its parts delivers a jazzy piano interpretation of the 12 signs of the zodiac, with " 'Leo' a growling march," noted Down Beat critic Jim Macnie of its recorded version some years later, while "the seesaw agitation of 'Gemini' comes neatly balanced." Macnie asserted that "it's hard to imagine Williams' intricate miniatures not raising the eyebrows of all who heard them at the time. Almost instantly memorable, their clever construction beguiled listeners by revamping the functions of theme and variation."
Around this time Williams began hosting her own radio show, the Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop, but she was beginning to weary of the musician's lifestyle. She moved to Europe in the early 1950s, where she enjoyed regular work as a jazz pianist at London and Paris nightclubs, but one day in 1954 walked off a Paris stage and went back to New York. She announced her official retirement from performing and delved into charity work in Harlem. She also underwent a religious awakening and converted from her Southern Baptist roots to Roman Catholicism. In 1957, she established the Bel Canto Foundation to help New York-area musicians with substance abuse problems, and she personally ran the thrift shop that funded it.
Encouraged by others, Williams returned to stage in 1957 with Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival. She founded a trio, as well as her own record company—the first established by a woman—called Mary Records, but she also began writing liturgical music. Her 1962 cantata, "Black Christ of the Andes," honored Saint Martin de Porres, the first African-heritage saint in the Roman Catholic Church who had been canonized by Pope John XXIII that same year. Williams's most famous work from this era, however, remains Music for Peace, commissioned by the Vatican in 1969 and sometimes referred to as "Mary Lou's Mass." It was adapted for ballet and staged by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1971, and a performance of it was given at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan in 1975, which made history as the first jazz Mass ever held there.
Williams made an important recording in 1970 titled The History of Jazz. A solo piano performance and lecture, Williams gave a first-person account of her years in jazz and demonstrated its changing rhythms and styles on the keyboard. She became a purist about jazz in her later years, voicing a strong dislike for modernist and rock influences on the form. She did, however, perform with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor in 1977 at Carnegie Hall. That same year she took a post as artist-in-residence at Duke University in North Carolina, where she taught a new generation of jazz and piano students. It was also the first regular paycheck of her life. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1979 and gave her last performance in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1980. Later that year she was also involved in a performance of one of her masses at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina, though she was by then debilitated from radiation treatments. She died just a few weeks after her 71st birthday on May 28, 1981, in Durham, North Carolina. She was inducted into Down Beat magazine's Hall of Fame in 1990 as the first female instrumentalist ever to earn that honor. A "Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz" festival at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. has been held annually since 1996.
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Washington Post, March 26, 1999. □