This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Mary Elfrida Scruggs, known as Mary Lou Williams, was born on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Ga. The second of 11 children, Williams had a knack for music at a very young age, teaching herself the piano at age three. Williams is said to have “played piano out of necessity at a very young age; her white neighbors were throwing bricks into her house until Williams began playing the piano in their homes.” In order to support her family, Williams (around age six) began playing piano at parties. By age seven, she was performing in front of live audiences, and soon became known in Pittsburgh as “the little piano girl.”
As a teen, Williams appeared in a traveling vaudeville show called Hits and Bits. At merely 16 years of age, she met and married John Williams and joined his band. Soon, she began doing arrangements for Terrence Holder‘s band in 1929 in Kansas City. Her big break came when Williams became a full time member of Andy Kirk’s band in 1930. She remained with the band until 1942 and wrote and performed such songs as Walkin’ and Swingin’, Froggy Bottom, and Cloudy. When reminiscing about her days with Kirk, Williams recalled: “I remember not eating for practically a month several times. But we were very, very happy because the music was so interesting, and you forgot to eat, anyway.”
During her time with Kirk’s band, Williams gained a reputation as a great pianist and arranger. Her big band arrangements were so successful, that she freelanced music and arrangements for other bands and artists, including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Tommy Dorsey.
Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Williams “divided her time between composing, playing in small clubs, touring Europe, and teaching jazz.” She touched the lives of many in the jazz world, particularly women who wanted to make their mark as performers and composers. As the swing era came to a close, Williams turned her attention to bebop, and continued her success. Thelonious Monk even borrowed a bop riff from her song Walkin’ and a Swingin’ for his song Rhythm-a-Ning.
As demonstrated throughout her career, Williams was able to easily adapt to new styles of jazz music, and did so with an uncanny level of skill. Duke Ellington summed up Williams’ musical talent when he wrote, “Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and have always been just a little ahead throughout her career…her music retains and maintains a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.”
Mary Lou Williams passed away on May 28, 1981, from bladder cancer in Durham, N.C. Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk attended her funeral at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola.