Mary Lou Williams: The First Lady of Jazz

In the centennial of her birth, The Root takes a look at the long and varied career of one of jazz's unsung female piano virtuosos.

Throughout the history of jazz, men like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie carved out the basic musical fabrics that ranged from the boogie blues to fusion.

Yet there's one woman who is admiringly -- and indisputably -- the single thread that stitches together the many pieces spanning almost six decades. Mary Lou Williams, a virtuoso pianist, composer and arranger, was truly, as the Kennedy Center dubbed her, "the first lady of jazz.''

Williams, a musical prodigy who began playing professionally as a teen in the 1920s, was always ahead of her time. While most women who garnered fame in jazz tended to be singers, Williams composed and arranged music for Ellington, Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk. She mentored a generation of jazz giants, including Monk and Gillespie.

By the time of her death in 1981 at 71, Williams had more than 300 compositions and recordings in her repertoire, which crossed a broad array of musical styles.

The year 2010 marks the centennial of her birth, which is being celebrated with concerts and seminars to acquaint music lovers with her lesser-known legacy. She thrived without onstage theatrics -- choosing to let her music speak for itself, says Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle, associate professor of musicology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

"You can't box her in and categorize her or her work," says Dr. Kernodle, who also wrote the biography Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. "Mary Lou is a personification of genius that denigrates gender and social barriers."

Williams, for her part, was clear about her role in jazz. As she once put it, she used her music to "heal disturbed souls."

"I am praying through my fingers when I play," Williams said in a 1964 interview with Time. "I get that good 'soul sound,' and I try to touch people's spirits."

She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta in 1910 but spent most of her childhood in the East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She grew up working class, one of 11 children of a mother and stepfather. Her mother played an old pump organ for the local church.

As a child, Mary Lou always sat in her mother's lap while she practiced. One day, Mary Lou closely watched her mother's fingers roll across the keys; minutes later, she was able to recount the exact melody. He mother, Virginia, shocked by her daughter's action, dropped Mary Lou and ran to tell the neighbors.

Virginia didn't want to tarnish her daughter's talent through formal training, so she let her daughter teach herself the instrument. Her stepfather, Fletcher Burley, encouraged her by purchasing a piano for their home. By age 6, Mary Lou was playing at private parties and eventually for public events. Around town, she became known as "the little piano girl of East Liberty."

At 12 she was touring with the vaudeville show Hits and Bits and then with the Orpheum Circuit with dancers Seymour James and Jeanette Taylor. Three years later, as a young teenager, she played with Ellington and his early small band, known as the Washingtonians. She eventually became an arranger for him and wrote the song "Trumpet No End" (1946).

In 1927 she married saxophonist John Williams; together they formed a small group based in Memphis, Tenn. Two years later, John was invited to play with Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy band. (By this time, she'd taken to calling herself Mary Lou Williams.) Mary Lou first recorded with them in 1929, when the band's regular piano player missed the session and John urged Kirk to allow Mary Lou to take the absent musician's place. She would go on to pen numbers such as "Walkin' and Swingin'," "Little Joe From Chicago" and "Cloudy." Mary Lou toured with Kirk until 1942, just after divorcing John. She married trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker soon after, but eventually they separated, though never officially divorced. By this time, she had moved to New York.

Re-posted from The

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