Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams Illustration by Sara Lièvre
Illustration by Sara Lièvre

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia. By the age of two, she could pick out simple tunes on the piano, and received lessons from her mother the following year. While still a child, she began to support her family by playing at parties.

In 1927, she married saxophonist John Overton Williams and moved with him to Memphis, Tennessee. He assembled a band there, and in 1929, 19-year-old Mary Lou Williams assumed leadership of the Memphis band when her husband was hired by bandleader Andy Kirk in Oklahoma City.

Red Wood Coast

When Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy accepted a longstanding engagement in Kansas City, Missouri, Williams joined her husband and began sitting in with the band, as well as serving as its arranger and composer. She provided Kirk with such compositions as “Froggy Bottom,” “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” and “Mary’s Idea.”

During a trip to Chicago in 1930, she made two solo recordings: “Drag ’Em” and “Night Life.” Within a few years she started arranging freelance for Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, and Benny Goodman, for whom she wrote the boogie-woogie themed “Roll ’Em” in 1937.

After leaving Kirk’s band in 1942, and, after a brief stint with Duke Ellington, Williams worked in nightclubs and radio and began mentoring and collaborating with bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Hot Jazz Jubile

In 1945, Williams composed and recorded the classically-influenced Zodiac Suite, in which each of the twelve parts corresponded to a sign of the zodiac; she performed it at Town Hall in New York City.

Williams went abroad to perform in England in 1952 and stayed in Europe through 1954. That year she converted to Catholicism and left music for a time, only to return when her priests told her she could continue to serve God by creating music. Shortly thereafter, Dizzy Gillespie convinced her to accompany his band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

She spent the subsequent years composing liturgical music and devoting herself to philanthropy and teaching. In her final decade, she returned to playing jazz concerts and festivals, and issued new recordings.

Mary Lou Williams died in Durham, North Carolina, on May 28, 1981. adapted from Wikipedia

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