Pianist and composer, Mary Lou Williams, [née. Scruggs, Mary Elfrieda] (b. Atlanta, 8 may1910; d. Durham, NC, 28 May 1981) grew up in Pittsburgh, PA 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, Mary Lou 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 distinctive arrangements, compositions and solo performances on piano; she also provided noteworthy swing-band scores for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey and others. 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 with Duke Ellington, writing for him the famous Trumpet No End in 1946. In the same year, three movements from the Zodiac Suite were performed in Carnegie Hall by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra—a very early instance of the recognition of jazz by a leading symphony orchestra. She was among the first jazz artists to perform at Carnegie Hall and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
By now, Williams had become an important figure in bop, contributing scores to Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and advancing the careers of many younger musicians. She continued to work with some of music’s greatest legends, including Ben Webster, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. From 1952 to 1954, she was based in Europe. Williams 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 (FW2860).
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 play attained a level of complexity and dissonance that rivaled avant-garde pianism of the time, but without losing the 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, etc.) 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.
Towards the end of her life, the distinguished pianist, composer, teacher and humanitarian received a number of honorary doctorates from American universities. Williams taught on the staff of Duke University as an Artist-in-Residence from 1977 until her death in 1981.
From The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, edited by Barry Kernfeld.