Mary Lou Williams
Died: 28 May 1981, Durham, North Carolina, USA
Black American jazz pianist, composer and arranger who performed with almost every major jazz artist throughout her career and renowned for her approach to the 'bop' style.
Williams grew up in a 'shotgun shack', where local musicians would gather and play. She played piano by ear from a very early age, so small she sat on musician's laps to reach the keys. By the time she and her elder sister Mamie had moved to Pittsburgh she had a stepfather, professional gambler Fletcher Burley. He would take her into gambling joints, where she would play and get tips, whilst her boogie piano skills also came in useful at rent-parties and chitterlin' struts.
Still in her pre-teens she was impressed by the likes of female pianists Lovie Austin and Ma Rainey and the works of Earl Hines, Jelly Roll Morton and, especially, Jack Howard. Even at this age she was 'toughening up' to the realities of performing live ghetto music between East Liberty, Soho and the downtown districts of Pittsburgh.
By the time Williams was in high school she had her big break. Her mother agreed, with the Theatre Owners' Booking Association [TOBA], for her to tour with the 'Hits & Bits' show for two months. Williams later referred to the acronym as 'Tough On Black Artists'. It was a tour that enabled Williams to meet Earl Hines, Charlie Creath, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and the blues singer, Irene Scruggs, in Chicago.
In Cleveland she met John Williams (14) with his Syncopaters. 'Bearcat', as he was known, impressed her and he would later become her husband. Back at school she began to learn more instruments, but decided to stick to the piano. After graduation she joined up with Williams on another TOBA tour and finally ended up in New York. Here she met Fats Waller and got an intermission residence at Connie's Inn. Williams then went and got married in Memphis, where the two set up a new band, playing out of the Pink Rose Ballroom. Her husband then went to Oklahoma on an engagement, leaving seventeen year-old Mary Lou as leader of the band. She then joined up with her husband in Oklahoma, in the band that would become Andy Kirk And His Clouds Of Joy.
Williams' career then took another turn in Kansas City, playing all the speak-easy clubs during the prohibition years. In 1930 Williams cut her first solo recordings "Drag 'Em" and "Night Life" - for which she later barred sales, as she was never paid, although the producer had at least given her the new credit, by which she became known, "Mary Lou". She then played with Kirk's band at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia, backing Blanche Calloway's act, followed by stints at Winnwood Beach Park Ballroom, the Sunset and Fairyland Park Ballroom in Kansas City. In Kansas she was also influenced by meeting Art Tatum, Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk and female pianists Julia Lee, Oceola and 'Countess' Margaret Johnson. Pha Terrell's hot vocals were added to the band and Ben Webster quit to join Cab Calloway, around the same time that Count Basie was gaining attention at Kansas City's Reno Club. In this fertile atmosphere of swing Williams was composing and arranging furiously, penning numbers such as "Froggy Bottom", "Steppin' Pretty", "Corky", "Walkin' And Swingin'" and the popular "Cloudy".
In 1936 she recorded "Isabelle" and "Overhand" with Decca and was on nightly broadcasts from Cleveland, along with Pha Terrell and Dick Wilson. The band's release of "Froggy Bottom" became a big juke-hit and Williams toured with Kirk and the band through all the Southern states. By 1938 she had written vast quantities of arrangements for all the big names in jazz, sometimes credited, sometimes not. After a six-month engagement with yet another band line-up at the Grand Terrace in Chicago, that included Henry Wells and June Richmond, Williams was hospitalized with exhaustion and convalesced back in Pittsburgh. She rejoined the band for their residency at The Cotton Club in New York and, by the end of the club itself in 1941, her career took a down-turn. John Williams had departed her to start a catering business with Kirk's wife Mary, their musician Dick Wilson died and Mary Lou left the Andy Kirk band to return, once again, to Pittsburgh. Here she formed a combo with Harold Baker that included Art Blakey and Orlando Wright. However, Baker was soon poached by Duke Ellington and, by the time Williams' band reached New York, she realised how much she missed him. She and Baker got hitched in Baltimore and so Williams' piano occasionally became part of Ellington's ensemble. She left the band in Canada and went back to New York to join in the sessions at Minton's Playhouse on West 118th Street - the 'house that built bop'. Here she jammed with Monk and the likes of Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke and Idrees Sulieman until 1943, when an offer came to play solo in shows at the Café Society. Through this period of 'the bop' she interpolated ideas with friends like Thelonius Monk, Tadd Dameron, Billy Strayhorn, Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell and Aaron Bridges.
Williams had firm ideas about 'the real bop' as she explained in 'Melody Maker' in 1954; "Often you hear guys blowing a lot of notes and people say: `They're bopping.' But they are not. Bop is the phrasing and accenting of the notes, as well as the harmonies used. Every other note is accented. Never in the history of jazz has the phrasing been like it is in bop. Musicians like Dave Brubeck come up with different styles which may be interesting. But they are not bop... That's one reason I tried to encourage the original modernists to continue writing and experimenting... Jazz is created in the mind, felt in the heart and heard through the fingertips".
During 1944 Williams took time out and was recorded by 'Moe' Moses Asch, who gained her royalty rights for works and also captured her "Zodiac Suite", helping her to gain the recognition and financial freedom she deserved. She also met up with David Stone Martin and photographer Gjon Mili, the former designing her sleeves and the latter eventually displaying her portraits in New York's Museum Of Modern Art.
After playing in both Café Society and Uptown Café on 59th Street for some five years her next break came when Norman Granz hit town. Granz gained her recording dates with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, where her re-arranged 'Zodiac' works were again captured to acetate. Williams then took time out again and then picked up, after doing some broadcasts and TV shows, to join Benny Goodman at Bop City on Broadway. In 1952 she then performed in the UK and toured Europe. Williams gave back much of what she had learned in her career, giving jazz masterclasses in American schools and on campus in her later years. Her final recording, three years before her death from bladder cancer, was "Solo Recital" - a medley of spirituals, ragtime, blues and swing - recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1978. She was interred at Calvary Cemetery in her hometown of Pittsburgh.
Mary Lou Williams Discography Tracks
- 2 Vocals
- 200 Instruments & Performance
- 355 Writing & Arrangement
- 5 Featuring & Presenting
- 2 Conducting & Leading
- 6 Production
- 6 Acting, Literary & Spoken