Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Williams, Mary Lou (Mary Alfrieda Scruggs)

From Kansas City in the twenties to New York in the forties and beyond, pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams made direct contributions to nearly every major development of jazz in her lifetime, but rarely received the recognition she deserved. A devout Roman Catholic, she composed long-form orchestral and religious works, taught at Duke University and helped found the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.

               Mary Lou Williams, artwork by Keith Henry Brown

She was born Mary Alfrieda Scruggs on May 8th, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, in the Edgewater Section of the city. Scruggs grew up with ten siblings and relocated with her family to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when she was five years old. A musical prodigy, she taught herself how to play the piano She also had perfect pitch and a prodigious memory.

By age eight, little Mary was playing parties and funeral services. Most musicians go decades before being honored with a nickname, by the age of ten was dubbed the “little piano girl of East Liberty.” At age thirteen, she was touring with saxophonist Johnny Williams who headed up the band for the traveling show “Buzzin’ Harris and His Hats and Bits.” In order for Scruggs to go on the road, Johnny Williams had to go to a public notary to declare that his intentions were honorable, due to the budding pianist's tender age.

Johnny Williams soon became Mary Scruggs’s first husband. In 1926, they toured the vaudeville circuit with his band, the Syncopators, were asked to back up the vaudeville dance troupe of Seymour and Jeanette James. Following the death of Seymour, Johnny decided to accept an invitation to join bassist Andy Kirk’s band, leaving Mary to handle to the band’s business in Memphis.

Kirk relocated his “Dark Clouds of Joy” band to Kansas City and Mary, now known as Mary Lou, joined Kirk and her husband Johnny not long after. Kirk quickly recognized her potential, and she wrote several songs for Kirk's band, including “Cloudy” and “Little Joe from Chicago.” In 1930 Williams traveled to Chicago, Illinois to record for the Brunswick label. She cut several piano sides for the record company including “Drag ‘Em” and “Night Life.”

The success of these records pushed Williams into the spotlight. Soon enough, she had signed on to be Andy Kirk’s permanent second pianist, and found herself freelancing with the likes of Benny Goodman, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Tommy Dorsey. In 1936, she recorded the side “Clean Pickin’" with bassist Booker Collins and drummer Ben Thigpen. In 1937, Benny Goodman was on NBC radio in New York City and Williams composed the song “Camel Hop,” which was used during the Camel cigarette ads on his show. Williams continued to write for Kirk’s band, putting her signature on the influential Kansas City sound, and other leading musicians of the day sought out her services, including Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Lunceford, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.

In 1942, Williams had divorced Johnny and remarried trumpeter Shorty Baker, who was also a member of Kirk’s band. Baker was then hired by Duke Ellington, who hired Williams to work as an arranger with the band. Williams was tired of life on the road, and her marriage to Baker was short-lived. Not long after, she decided to leave life on the road and settled in New York City. She was soon hired by Barney Josephson, who owned the Café Society. With the assistance of Josephson, she was able to get her own weekly radio show on WNEW, called the Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop. She premiered three works from her multi-movement work “The Zodiac Suite” on the show, and gave its first public performance at New York’s Town Hall on December 31st, 1945. In June of 1946, she performed the piece at Carnegie Hall with the New York Pops.

During the 1940s in New York, Williams was also helping to change the face of bebop. She mentored pianist Thelonious Monk and also wrote the 1945 hit “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” for Dizzy Gillespie and also became a close friend of his wife Lorraine. In the 1950s, Williams contributed more music to Gillespie’s big band and in 1952 she relocated to Europe after accepting an invitation to perform in England. She stayed there until 1954 and upon returning to the United States took a sabbatical from music altogether. During this time, Williams underwent a spiritual awakening first with an association with Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and then began to attend the Roman Catholic Church on 142nd Street. She was baptized in 1956, with Dizzy Gillespie’s wife present at the ceremony.

She returned to music with full force in 1957 and performed with Dizzy and his big band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival for a three hundred dollar fee. At the festival, the band performed movements from Williams’ “Zodiac Suite," although the audio quality of the recording is poor. In the 1960s, Williams composed and performed almost exclusively religious and spiritual music, although she contributed music to the orchestras of Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. In 1964, with the assistance of a Roman Catholic bishop, John Wright, Williams helped to form the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. Williams also retained a new manager and spiritual advisor, Father Peter O’ Brian, who remained with her until her death.

In 1971, Williams performed her religious piece “Mary Lou’s Mass” on the Dick Cavett show. Also in the early 1970s, Williams lent her support to Dr. Billy Taylor’s Jazz mobile program in Harlem and also made a memorable appearance on the children’s program Sesame Street. In 1977, Williams performed at Carnegie Hall in New York with pianist Cecil Taylor. In 1980, she accepted a teaching position at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Sadly, Williams died of bladder cancer on May 28th, 1981. Williams was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Williams’ early career as an arranger, pianist, and performer made an indelible mark on jazz, and she influenced many of the musicians who went on to further shape the face of the music. While scholars and critics have only recently started to give her the credit she is due, her accomplishments and contributions live through the her own music, as well as that of Thelonious Monk, Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and others whose talents she nurtured.

Select Discography

as Mary Lou Williams

Drag ‘Em (Brunswick, 1930)-single

Night Life (Brunswick, 1930)-single

The Zodiac Suite (Folkways, 1945)

The First Lady of the Piano (Inner City, 1953)

Mary Lou’s Mass (Mary, 1970)

My Mama Put A Rose on Me (Pablo, 1977)

Contributor: Jared Pauley