Mary Lou Williams Essay

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams

“…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 a standard of quality that is timeless.

She is like soul on soul…”

(Duke Ellington)

It is a known fact that overwhelming majority of famous jazz musicians are men, and every time a female jazz singer or instrumentalist appears on stage, she evokes a wave of slight skepticism and even neglect. Why is this so? Jazz is supposed to be the art of manly drive, and usually female jazz performers blend their improvisations and interpretations with something too lyrical and romantic. Certainly, not every jazz lover can like this. At the same time, there is a number of legendary “real ladies” in jazz, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the others. They remain in music history as creative improvisers and passionate performers who managed to demonstrate all eccentric swing and energy of real jazz.

Mary Lou Williams can be called “the first lady of jazz” because she became one of the most important jazz musicians and innovators during the first decades of the development of this music genre. She was a multitalented person and extremely influential pianist, a very prolific composer and arranger, whose legacy exceeds three hundred of created and taped jazz compositions and arrangements. Her biographers say that “..she recorded over a hundred records… and performed on stages from California to New York, Florida to Canada, London to Copenhagen, and many points in between” (Kernodle, 2004, p. 2). She was the instrumentalist and composer, whose contribution and influence on formation of traditional classic jazz, as well as its stylistic combinations with swing, bebop and other genres, is far beyond that of any other composers and musicians of early jazz epochs.

Mary Lou (Mary Elfrieda Scruggs) was born on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta. Her early childhood was very hard and short. To make a living and earn some money to raise her children, Mary’s mother was taking in laundry from the people living in the neighborhood. In the memoirs about her childhood years, Mary Williams wrote: “got beaten everyday” (Dahl, 2001, p. 6). She could experience the hardships of poor life, racial discrimination and living with a drinking stepfather since her early years. But as a very gifted child, little Mary had something that was bringing her hopes for better and helping to take the rough with the smooth. She had her piano and her music.

Mary learned the basics of playing piano from her mom, who liked playing the reed organ. One day, when 4-year old Mary was sitting on her mother’s knee, she reached the keys and reproduced the melody her mother had just played. “I must have frightened her so that she dropped me then and there, and I started to cry”, remembers Williams (UXL Encyclopedia, 2005). Since the age of 5, Mary started giving her first concerts, and a year later, when all the family moved to Pittsburg, the talented girl began earning her first money by playing at different celebrations and parties, helping her parents to make ends meet. Mary played by ear a great deal of melodies from African American spirituals and all kinds of music she could hear in East Liberty neighborhood.

When Mary became a teenager, she started working in various black vaudeville shows and played as a traveling musician, known as “a little piano girl” (Kernodle, 2004, p.23). Mary was greatly supported by her family, uncle and brother-in-law, but especially by her new stepfather, Fletcher Burley, who bought a good piano for young musical genius. He was also paying for private lessons for Mary and was smuggling her to into various clubs and bars where she could practice her improvisations for money. In 1924 Mary was accepted to the orchestra of the Orpheum Circuit theatre. In 1925 she played with young Duke Ellington and met a prominent jazz innovator and spiritual leader Louis Armstrong, who could not help noticing young girl’s natural talent for improvisation.

 After some months of traveling around the state with the Seymour & Jeanette Show, in 1926 Mary moved to Kansas City and became a new member of John Williams Dance Band. Accompanying John Williams, a talented saxophonist-clarinetist (who became Mary’s husband), she made a series of her first professional recordings for the Paramount, Champion and other recording companies. However, due to lack of proper management, in 1928 Williams had to leave his band, moved to Memphis and accepted the invitation to join Andy Kirk’s orchestra (The Twelve Clouds of Joy) together with his young wife. For this band, Mary wrote her first serious compositions, including “Little Joe from Chicago”, “Walkin’ and Swingin'”, “Cloudy” and others.

In those times, female musicians, especially such brilliant ones as Mary, were quite a unique attraction for the listeners, and the popularity of the band started increasing very fast. That is why in early 1930s Andy Kirk’s band became one of the most demanded swing bands in the Southwest. Andy Kirk was lucky to recognize Mary’s talent for making very good arrangements of known and new songs, and he started teaching her musical notation in order to make her work more effective. However, Mary herself was concerned the most not about her compositions or arrangements, but about her improvisation skills. “What she liked best was going to jam sessions after the playing gigs ended” (Dahl, 2001, p.72).

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 Though she was a member of Andy Kirk’s band, Mary was given a chance to make her first solo records. She went to Chicago to record her songs “Night Life” and “Drag ‘Em”, and took the name Mary Lou. These records marked the dawn of her nationwide fame, and Mary Lou’s talent, both as an instrumentalist and an arranger, attained great appreciation and recognition. Therefore, she started collaborating with a number of great jazz musicians, including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Cab Callowy and many others. In the end of the decade, Mary Lou wrote the compositions, which can be considered the best in her career: “Camel Hop” (was given to Benny Goodman) and “What’s Your Story Morning Glory” (was given to the band of her friend J. Lunceford).

The beginning of the forties was marked for Mary by divorcing her husband and separation from Andy Kirk’s band. She headed to New York, which was a center of artistic life in those years. In this period of time, Mary Lou started experimenting with the styles and was trying to create some innovative sounds in swing and jazz music. She became one of the pioneers of bebop and one of the most active promoters of this revolutionary style. Bebop of those times was based mostly on fast harmonic improvisations, and that was exactly what she enjoyed the most! She tried to blend bebop with calmer stylistic patterns of boogie and blues, so well-familiar to her from her early childhood.

She started sitting in at Café Society Downtown and was constantly in the sight of the most influential jazz musicians of that epoch. “She came to know the principals like Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, and many liked to gather in her Harlem apartment for impromptu sessions” (UXL Encyclopedia, 2005). Together with Ellington, Mary recorded a marvelous composition “Trumpet No End”, and for Gillespie she wrote one of his greatest hits “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee”. The popularity of Mary Lou was growing, and in 1946 a premiere of her first significant solo work, The Zodiac Suit, took place on the stage of Carnegie Hall. Accompanied by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, she presented amazing piano interpretations of twelve zodiac signs.

For a year or so, Mary Lou worked as a host of her radio show, the Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop, and in the beginning of the 1950s she received an attractive offer to start performing in Europe. Feeling mentally tired of her lifestyle as a freelance musician in New York, she decided to sign up the contract and accepted the offer to start European tour. In 1952 she moved to London and opened a new period of her musical career: playing in the clubs and on concert stages of London, Paris, Amsterdam and many other European cities. She was receiving a lot of appreciation and positive reactions from European audiences and critics, and one of the most reputable British magazines Melody Maker honored her unique talent by naming her “…one of the finest women instrumentalists that has even been known” (Kernodle, 2004, p. 152).

However, in 1955, after more than two years of successful tours and brilliant performances, Mary Lou was suddenly back to the U.S., where she announced her decision to quit music and entirely dedicate herself to charity and the Catholic church. Later on she explained that she had a certain emotional crisis, which caused a spiritual rise in her soul and made her a devoted Roman Catholic. She spent about three years in various religious and charity activities: in particular, she established a charity organization the Bel Canto Foundation which was helping American musicians to fight with substance abuse.

It took a lot of efforts from Mary’s friends, priests and fans to convince her to be back to stage performances. In 1957, her long-awaited return was marked by a great concert with Gillespie at Jazz Festival in Newport. Together with her new manager, Father O’Brien, Mary Lou established a recording company Cecilia Music, opened a new venue for jazz performances in Manhattan and found several good and experienced musicians for her new band. Throughout the 1960s, she continued playing in clubs and colleges, participating in various concerts, jazz festivals and musical TV shows, founded a publishing agency and initiated an annual jazz festival in Pittsburg.

In this period of her career, Mary Lou wrote a great deal of spiritual and liturgical pieces of music. “She was the first Jazz Composer to write for sacred purposes” (Ratcliffe, n.d.). In 1963 she presented to general public her grandiose cantata Black Christ of the Andes honoring the St. Martin de Porres. Her contribution to religious music includes dozens of lyrical hymns and several masses. The mass “Music for Peace” (or “Mary Lou’s Mass”) was, undoubtedly, one of her best compositions: an amazing piece of gospel-jazz, with bluesy piano improvisations, cheerful and melodic vocals, and inspiring celestial tunes. It was the first jazz mass that received a lot of popularity. Later on, it was adapted for ballet and choreographed by the artists of Alvin Ailey Theater.

In the 1970s Mary Lou’s career continued flourishing. In 1971 she completed her extensive project called The History of Jazz: a retrospective, in which she told the history of jazz music, illustrating all the stylistic peculiarities with interesting piano improvisations. Till the end of her life she made every effort to promote and popularize jazz music by touring around the country with lectures and concerts, teaching jazz history in Duke University in North Carolina, appearing in various TV shows and making new records. In 1978 she played in the White House for President Carter. A year later, doctors diagnosed her with cancer and she had to slow down her activities in order to have some treatment. Till her death in May 1981, Mary Lou was involved in performing her hymns, spirituals and masses at the cathedrals and various festivals of religious music in North Carolina.

Mary Lou Williams was an outstanding musician who remained in the hearts of true lovers of jazz as a smiling goddess of the jazz pantheon. She expanded compositional forms and techniques of jazz, contributed a lot to the development of bebop and blues, made a great deal of records and wrote a number of truly divine pieces of religious music. But, what is more, she managed to become popular in the epoch, when female composers and instrumentalists were considered to be absolutely extraordinary phenomenon. “Her stature in the jazz world is a natural attraction for scholars examining the lives not only of women jazz musicians, but also of twentieth-century African-American women and American history in a larger context” (Rutgers, n.d.).


Dahl, L. (2001). Morning Glory – A Biography of Mary Lou Williams. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Kernodle, T. L. (2004). Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press.
Mary Lou Williams. (n.d.). John Cotton Dana Library, Rutgers Business School. Retrieved June 19, 2008, from: < >.
Mary Lou Williams. (2005). UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. Ed. 3. Farmington Hills, MI: UXL (Gale).
Ratcliffe, D. (n.d.). Mary Lou Williams – Pianist, Composer, Arranger and Innovator Extraordinaire. Rat House Reality Press. Retrieved June 23, 2008, from <>.


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