Mary Lou Williams Biography

Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, 8 May 1910, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, d. 28 May 1981, Durham, North Carolina, USA. A child prodigy, Williams played in public at the age of six and by the time she reached her teenage years was already a seasoned professional piano player. At the age of 16 she married saxophonist John Williams, playing in his band throughout the Midwest. When her husband left to join Terrence Holder’s band, Mary Lou took over the leadership of the band before eventually she too joined Holder. After this band had metamorphosed into Andy Kirk and his Clouds Of Joy, Williams assumed additional responsibilities as the group’s chief arranger. During the 30s, while still with Kirk, her arrangements were also used by Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, who had a hit with her composition ‘Roll ’Em’. After her marriage to John Williams ended, she married Harold ‘Shorty’ Baker and co-led a band with him before he joined Duke Ellington. She continued to lead the band but also contributed some arrangements to Ellington. Williams was instrumental in informing John Hammond Jnr. about the talents of Charlie Christian.

Throughout the 40s and early 50s Williams played at clubs in the USA and Europe, sometimes as a solo artist, at other times leading a small group. For a few years in the mid-50s she worked outside music, but returned to the scene in the autumn of 1957 and thereafter played clubs, concerts and festivals for the rest of her life. As an arranger, Williams’ greatest contribution to jazz was her work with the Kirk band. Her charts were exemplary, providing this fine group with a distinctive voice and ably employing the individual talents of the band’s members. Although her arrangements for other groups were necessarily somewhat impersonal, they were invariably first-class examples of straightforward swinging big band music. Many of her arrangements were of her own compositions and the breadth of her work in this area was such that, in the mid-40s, a classical piece, ‘Zodiac Suite’, was performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. During this same period, she extended her writing into bop, providing charts for the Dizzy Gillespie big band.

Williams’ deep religious beliefs, which had led to her leaving music for a few years in the 50s, surfaced in some of her longer compositions, which included cantatas and masses. As a pianist, her range was similarly wide, encompassing stride and boogie-woogie, swing and early bop; she even recorded a duo concert with avant gardist Cecil Taylor, though this was not an unqualified success. Throughout the later years of her career, Williams extended her repertoire still further, offering performances which, interpreted through the piano, told the story of jazz from its origins to the present day. Williams was a highly articulate and intellectually gifted individual. In interviews she displayed a complex and decidedly ambivalent attitude towards life and music, perhaps fostered by the racial antagonism she encountered early in her career and dissatisfaction with the manner in which the entertainment industry demonstrated that it cared more for money than for music. Williams’ importance to the fabric of jazz was recognised towards the end of her life and she was honoured by several universities. In 2006 the Williams collective made a new recording of her ‘Zodiac Suite’. Those participating on the recording were Geri Allen (piano), Buster Williams (bass) and Billy Hart (drums).

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.