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Mary Lou Williams

“The first lady of the jazz keyboard”

Mary Lou Williams, born in 1910, was a pianist, arranger and composer from Atlanta, U.S. She was the first woman to be ranked with the greatest of jazz musicians and an important contributor to every aspect of jazz.

Her career began in the late 1920’s and lasted for more than half a century. She first started playing piano because of her mother, a classically trained pianist, picking out simple tunes at age two, she was a prodigy with perfect pitch and a highly developed musical memory by the time she was four years old. At age ten she was known as “the Little Piano Girl” and was performing for small audiences throughout Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her professional debut with big bands came in 1922, at age twelve, when she substituted for a pianist in the Buzz and Harris Revue, a traveling show.

By 1925, at just 15 years old, Williams was a full-time working musician with a  solidified status as a jazz great. She helped develop the Kansas City swing sound of the 1930s. And in the 1940s, she mentored some of bebop’s most famous innovators like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

Williams was an expert at her instrument and whatever she apparently ‘lacked’ for not being a man she made up for on the bandstand. Her musical ability allowed her to gain the respect of many men, both inside and outside of the jazz community. Mary Lou focused on the plight of her race and mourned the loss of the jazz heritage, and even later in her career tried to educate young blacks of the next generation about their jazz heritage. Mary Lou’s concerns and activities were noble and based on her preoccupation with racism.

She often had to legitimize her place on the bandstand through a demonstration of her musical ability. Simply because she was a woman, the men in her field did not expect her to have abilities equivalent to that of a man. The culturally appropriate place for Mary Lou was not on the bandstand, but rather in the home. Mary Lou broke the culturally appropriate gender roles by pursuing her music rather than motherhood. 

In the 1960s and ’70s she composed a number of liturgical pieces for jazz ensembles, including Black Christ of the Andes (1962), a cantata; Mass for the Lenten Season (1968); and Music for Peace (1970), popularly known as “Mary Lou’s Mass.” In 1970 she also recorded a comprehensive performance-lecture entitled The History of Jazz. Five years later she was appointed to the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and in 1977 to the faculty at Duke University.

Mary Lou was privy to many race issues throughout her life and time as a jazz pianist. Race and gender combined to make life as a composer difficult for Mary Lou. Not only was Mary Lou Williams a woman, but she was a black woman, and black women in the first part of the twentieth century were not afforded many rights.

Critics had a difficult time responding to Mary Lou’s music and classifying her as legitimate. While working for and touring with Andy Kirk’s band, the Clouds of Joy, Mary experienced first-hand the difficulties of segregation. Travelling even to a ‘northern’ city such as Kansas City, the effects of segregation remained rampant; even musicians’ unions were segregated. Luckily for Andy Kirk and the band, this did not prevent them from performing at many different venues. Conversely, later in her career, Mary Lou worked at Café Society Downtown, a club in New York City that practiced full integration and treated blacks and whites equally, and also she volunteered her time playing benefits for the NAACP as well as for the Committee for the Negro in the Arts.

For Williams, jazz was a vast and mighty tool of expression and one that, she believed, could serve as a crucial and necessary portal for black peoples to commune with and convey the complexities of their past. On many occasions, she set to writing — informally in unpublished essays and letters but also at times in public forums — in order to elaborate on the ways in which her own “modern music” was both a statement in aesthetic “progress” and yet, likewise, constitutive of old forms.

Her last recording was “Solo Recital” (Montreux Jazz Festival, 1978), three years before her death, a mixture of spiritual themes, ragtime, blues and swing. In 1981, Mary Lou Williams died of cancer in Durham, North Carolina, at the age of 71. Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk attended her funeral at St. Ignatius Loyola Church. She was buried in the Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh. Looking towards the end of her life, Mary Lou Williams said, “I did it, didn’t I? Through muck and mud.” And to this day we remember her as “the first lady of the jazz keyboard.”

Research from: Npr Music, Cedarville university, NY Times, Wikipedia