Black History is American History – February 28

February 28, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

Mary Lou Williams (1910 – 1981)

Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was born on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When Scruggs was a small child, she surprised her mother by playing a song she had just heard on the family’s pump organ. Trained by her mother, and aided by her gift of perfect pitch, she was playing professionally by the age of seven.

Appearing as Mary Lou Burley (her stepfather’s last name), she worked in locations that ranged from gambling dens to the vaudeville stage. As a teenager, she started performing with saxophonist John Williams. The two married in 1927, thus making her Mary Lou Williams. A few years later, Williams followed her husband to Kansas City, where she would become an integral part of the swing scene.

Though relegated to menial tasks at first, Mary Lou Williams began performing with the Twelve Clouds of Joy, a Kansas City band led by Andy Kirk. In addition to being the group’s pianist throughout the 1930s, she also composed and arranged much of its music. Her success with the Twelve Clouds of Joy meant Williams was soon sending compositions and arrangements to bandleaders such as Tommy Dorsey, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington. Her work as a composer and arranger for Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy in the early 1930s reveals one of the earliest examples of a woman given due respect from her peers for her musicianship. William’s career opens a window into the critically important Kansas City jazz scene that produced such giants as Count Basie, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker.

In 1942, Williams left Kirk’s band. When her second marriage to trumpeter Shorty Baker ended, she settled in New York City. There, she performed at a Greenwich Village nightclub and on a weekly radio show. Her Harlem apartment became a gathering place for musicians, and was where Williams mentored talents like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

During her time in New York, Williams demonstrated her musical adaptability. Not only did she incorporate bebop into her playing, she created longer pieces such as the “Zodiac Suite.” Three movements of this 12-part composition were performed at Carnegie Hall in 1946. In 1952, Williams relocated to Europe, where she remained until she walked out of a performance in Paris in 1954.

Even after Williams returned to the United States, she refrained from performing, as she felt that her spiritual needs were incompatible with the world of jazz. However, she eventually found solace in Catholicism. In 1956, Williams underwent a spiritual conversion to Catholicism and gave up playing to concentrate on spiritual matters until reemerging in 1957 with a performance alongside Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival. Compared to her rigorous schedule of touring over the previous 30 years, she played only sporadically over the next decade. She formed the Bel Canto Foundation to assist drug- and alcohol-dependent musicians in 1958. This initiative prefigured her founding of Cecilia Music, a publishing firm to release her compositions, and the establishment of her own record label, Mary Records, the first started by a woman, to issue her and other selected artists’ recordings. Given her newfound Catholic faith, Williams began to work on sacred pieces, composing several masses. One of these was Mary Lou’s Mass (originally called Music for Peace).

In 1971, Mary Lou’s Mass was interpreted by choreographer Alvin Ailey. Four years later, it became the first jazz piece to be performed at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Williams still continued to perform, including at President Jimmy Carter’s White House Jazz Party. In 1977, her career undertook yet another significant turn. Duke University formalized William’s role as an educator by appointing her as artist-in-residence, a position she held until her death in 1981. Duke permanently honored William’s contributions by opening the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in September 1983 with an address by Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison.

Williams was 71 when she succumbed to bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina, on May 28, 1981. She left behind more than 350 compositions. Though she is known for being one of the first women to succeed in jazz, she had a career whose accomplishments place her in the top echelon of musicians.

Jazz fans and historians long ago concluded that Mary Lou Williams was the most important female jazz musician to emerge in the first three decades of jazz. William’s multidimensional talents as an instrumentalist, arranger, and composer made her a star from her earliest days and, over the long haul, an equal to any musician successful in those endeavors. Her longevity as a top-flight jazz artist was extended because of her penchant for adapting to and influencing stylistic changes in the music. In his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, Duke Ellington wrote, “Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing have always been a little ahead throughout her career. Her music retains, and maintains, a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.” (on Mr. Rogers neighborhood)