VIP Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams (May 8, 1910 - May 28, 1981)

“She is like Soul on Soul.” -- Duke Ellington

Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, Mary Lou Williams grew up in Pittsburgh, where she taught herself to play the piano at the age of 4 and began playing publicly two years later. In 1924 she began touring on the Orpheum Circuit and the following year she played with Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians.

In 1930 Williams traveled to Chicago and cut her first solo record, "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life," which was a national success. Soon she was playing solo gigs and working as a freelance writer arranger for such noteworthy names as Earl Hines and Tommy Dorsey. In 1937 she wrote "Roll 'Em” (1937) for VIP Benny Goodman, which was recorded for Goodman’s “When Buddhah Smiles” LP, featuring Fletcher Henderson and VIP Gene Krupa on drums. All told, she wrote more than 350 compositions.

Morning Glory, a biography of Williams by Linda Dahl (University of California Press, 1999), describes a breach between Mary Lou and her first husband John Williams over "the taste she had acquired for marijuana." Dahl wrote, "Kansas City was a major railroad hub of the nation, distributing drugs along with corn and wheat, so it was easily available in the nightclubs there." Unable to handle liquor, pot "agreed with her." John said Mary Lou had been turned onto reefer by a fellow bandmate in the Clouds of Joy, a group that recorded Earl Thompson's song about reefer, "All the Jive Is Gone" in 1936. Williams "found marijuana calming, useful for reflecting and relaxing at times." (Dahl) By 1941 Mary had developed a lifestyle that disdained alcohol and developed "a taste for gambling, marijuana, and men" but lacked financial security.

Making the transition from stride piano to modern jazz, Williams played regularly at the famous Café Society in New York City, 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. Barney Josephson fired her for smoking pot one night at Café Uptown, even though as Doc Cheatham put it, "everyone in that group smoked pot. They had a little room off the bandstand and some, including Mary Lou and Billie [Holiday], would smoke pot in there. They would put me outside the door in a chair smoking a pipe that would cover the fumes of the pot."

In 1945 Williams composed the bebop hit "In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee" for Dizzy Gillespie and wrote the "Zodiac Suite," parts which were scored for the New York Philharmonic and performed at Carnegie Hall with Mary Lou on piano. In 1954 she introduced Thelonious Monk to his patroness the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, who once took a marijuana rap for Monk.

Eschewing heroin along with alcohol, Williams "began a lifelong crusade to help musicians troubled by addiction." In 1958, she founded the Bel Canto Foundation to help musicians return to their art, establishing thrift stores in Harlem to raise money and contributing 10 percent of her own earnings.

In addition to club work Williams played colleges, formed her own record label and publishing companies, co-founded the first jazz festival in Pittsburgh in 1964 and made numerous television appearances. After a religious conversion to Catholocism in Europe, she began composing hymns and masses, and one of them, "Music for Peace," (aka "Mary Lou's Mass") was choreographed and performed by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. "Real jazz has love,” Williams said. “When I’m playing, it seems as though someone else takes over. What I play comes from God, and I write it for the benefit of other people."

On September 23, 1983, Duke University opened the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, responding to longstanding demands by members of the Afro-American Society, who had held a three-day sit-in 15 years earlier at the university’s Allen Building to protest what they considered unfair policies toward black students. Willams' residency at Duke (from 1977 to 1981) provided her with the first real financial security she had ever known despite her long career in music.

The Mary Lou Williams Foundation was formed in the final year of Williams's life. A documentary titled Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band was produced in 2015. The 24th Annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival will be held at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on May 10 & 11, 2019.

Image: William Gottleib,

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