Mary Lou Williams

Phenomenal pianist, arranger, and composer of remarkable versatility and power, and probably the most influential woman in the history of jazz. She worked with, among others, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Mary Lou Williams was born (Mary Elfrieda Scruggs) in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1910 and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an illegitimate child of an impoverished and indifferent mother. Mary Lou Williams childhood, like that of Ethel Waters and Billie Holiday, was rough and short. Like Waters and Holiday, she had to earn her own livelihood while still a child, and became a woman before she was ready. At age six Williams was already helping to support her ten half-brothers and sisters by playing for parties. She began performing publicly at the age of seven, when she became known admiringly in her native Pittsburgh as “the little piano girl of East Liberty.” At seventeen Williams married a saxophone player named John Williams, one of her many tumultuous marriages and love affairs she went through throughout her life. She found comfort for her many disappointments and hurts not only in her music but in her spirituality. Mary Lou Williams wrote the well known “Trumpets No End” (1946) for Duke Ellington. Among her recordings “Zodiac Suite” (1945), “Waltz Boogie” (1946) and “Black Christ of The Andes” (1963). In 1970 as solo pianist and commentator she recorded The History of Jazz, she also during her musical career composed three complete masses and wrote other sacred music. Mary Lou Williams died in Durham, North Carolina on May 28, 1981. She was buried in Calvary Cemetery in a peaceful hilly section of Pittsburgh. As Mary Lou Williams said, looking back at the end of her life, “I did it, didn’t I? Through muck and mud.”

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