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Mary Lou Williams

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née Scruggs, Mary Elfrieda (1910 - 1981) Pianist and composer

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Mary Lou Williams
Host Nancy Wilson presents a profile of pianist Mary Lou Williams, who broke through significant barriers to women in jazz in her roles as a composer, innovator, and mentor.

Mary Lou Williams
Image courtesy of Chuck Stewart
Mary Lou Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she played professionally from a very early age. Taking her stepfather's name, she performed as Mary Lou Burley. In 1925, she joined a group led by John Williams, whom she married. When in 1929 Andy Kirk took over Terrence Holder's band, of which John was a member, Williams served the group as deputy pianist and arranger until April 1930, at which time she became a regular member. The fame of Kirk's band in the 1930s was due largely to Williams's distinctive arrangements, compositions, and solo performances on piano. She also provided noteworthy swing-band scores for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, and others.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Marian McPartland: A Tribute to Mary Lou Williams
The host of NPR's award-winning program Piano Jazz performs an excerpt from "Threnody," her musical tribute to Mary Lou Williams.

After leaving Kirk in 1942, Williams formed her own small group in New York with her second husband, Shorty Baker, as trumpeter. She briefly served as staff arranger for Duke Ellington, writing for him the well-known Trumpet No End in 1946. In the same year, three movements from the Zodiac Suite were performed at Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic, a very early instance of the recognition of jazz by a leading symphony orchestra. By now Williams had become an important figure in New York bop, contributing scores to Dizzy Gillespie's big band and advancing the careers of many younger musicians. From 1952 to 1954 she was based in Europe.

She retired from music in 1954 to pursue religious and charitable interests, but resumed her career in 1957. She remained active throughout the 1960s and 1970s, leading her own groups in New York clubs, composing sacred works for jazz orchestra and voices, and devoting much of her time to teaching. In 1970, as a solo pianist, and providing her own commentary, she recorded The History of Jazz. Towards the end of her life she received a number of honorary doctorates from American universities, and from 1977 taught on the staff of Duke University.

Williams was long regarded as the only significant female musician in jazz, both as an instrumentalist and as a composer, but her achievement is remarkable by any standards. She was an important swing pianist, with a lightly rocking, legato manner based on subtly varied stride and boogie-woogie bass patterns. Yet by constantly exploring and extending her style she retained the status of a modernist for most of her career. She adapted easily in the 1940s to the new bop idiom, and in the 1960s her playing attained a level of complexity and dissonance that rivaled avant-garde jazz pianism of the time, but without losing an underlying blues feeling. A similar breadth may be seen in her work as a composer and arranger, from her expert swing-band scores for Kirk (Walkin' and Swingin', Mary's Idea) to the large-scale sacred works of the 1960s and 1970s. Her Waltz Boogie of 1946 was one of the earliest attempts to adapt jazz to non-duple meters. Among her sacred works are a cantata, Black Christ of the Andes (1963), and three masses, of which the third, Mary Lou's Mass (1970), became well known in a version choreographed by Alvin Ailey.

NPR Audio Feature NPR Jazz Book Review: Morning Glory
Writer and historian Patricia Willard has a review of this recent biography of incomparable Mary Lou Williams.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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