Mary Lou Williams was a jazz pianist who performed with and arranged songs for several jazz legends in her time. The Atlanta-born, Pittsburgh-raised musician was born May 8, 1910.
Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was known in her Pittsburgh neighborhood as a child prodigy, earning the nickname “The Little Piano Girl” while playing for some of the city’s elite. She became a full-on professional in her teens and married jazz musician John Williams at 16.
When Williams joined Andy Kirk’s Swing band Twelve Cloud Of Joy, she became a member of the group after settling in Kansas City. She took on the name Mary Lou and began writing for the likes of Benny Goodman, while working as an arranger for Earl “Fatha” Hines, Tommy Dorsey, and others.
In 1942, the recently divorced Williams moved back to Pittsburgh and formed a six-piece band with Harold “Shorty” Baker and Art Blakely on the drums. She left the band to join Duke Ellington’s orchestra in New York and later married Baker.
She began arranging songs for Ellington, but left her husband and the band shortly after. Williams began hosting a radio program in New York then served as a mentor to musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Williams penned “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” for Gillespie and engaged in sessions with a number of New York Jazz and Be-Bop musicians.
In the ‘50s, Williams converted to Catholicism and briefly retired from music. She returned to music in the late fifties at the urging of two priests and Gillespie, performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 with Gillespie’s band.
She continued to record both secular and religious jazz records through the ‘60s while also helping to create Pittsburgh’s first jazz festival in 1964. Two years prior, she was credited as the first jazz musician to begin their own label. Williams’ career flourished through 7’0s with festival dates and recordings.
Williams accepted an appointment as an artist-in-residence in 1977 with Duke University and taught music there as well. She worked there until her death in 1981. She was 71.
PHOTO: William Gotlieb/Library of Congress via Flickr
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