Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger. Williams wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements, and recorded more than one hundred records (in 78, 45, and LP versions). Williams wrote and arranged for such bandleaders as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others. Born as Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Georgia, she grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of eleven children. As a very young child she taught herself to play the piano (her first public performance was at the age of six). She became a professional musician in her teens. She cited Lovie Austin as her greatest influence. At age six, Williams was already helping to support her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing for parties. She began performing publicly at the age of seven, when she became known admiringly in Pittsburgh as “the little piano girl of East Liberty”. In 1924, at age 14 she was taken on the Orpheum Circuit. The following year she played with Duke Ellington and his early small band, the Washingtonians. Williams accepted a regular gig at the Café Society Downtown, started a weekly radio show called Mary Lou Williams’s Piano Workshop on WNEW, and began mentoring and collaborating with many younger bebop musicians, most notably Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. In 1945, Williams composed the bebop hit “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” for Dizzy Gillespie. Although closely aligned with the bop musicians during her time in New York, Williams also staged a large-scale orchestral rendition of her composition Zodiac Suite at New York’s Town Hall in 1945, with bassist Al Lucas and drummer Jack “The Bear” Parker, and the New York Philharmonic. She recorded Zodiac with Lucas and Parker on the Asch label: the recording is available today on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. In 1952, Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years. When she returned to the United States she took a hiatus from performing, converting in 1956 to Roman Catholicism. Her final recording, Solo Recital (Montreux Jazz Festival, 1978), three years before her death, had a medley encompassing spirituals, ragtime, blues and swing. Other highlights include Williams’s reworkings of “Tea for Two”, “Honeysuckle Rose”, and her two compositions “Little Joe from Chicago” and “What’s Your Story Morning Glory”. Other songs include “Medley: “The Lord Is Heavy”, Old Fashion Blues”, “Over the Rainbow”, “Offertory Meditation”, “Concerto Alone at Montreux”, and “Man I Love”. In 1981, Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina, aged 71. She was buried in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery in her native Pittsburgh. As Mary Lou Williams said, looking back at the end of her life, “I did it, didn’t I? Through muck and mud.”
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