The Little Piano Girl Of East Liberty

Mary Lou Williams, CBS studio, New York, N.Y., ca. Apr. 1947

Mary Lou Williams, CBS studio 1947 (Library of Congress)

March, 2017
By
J.C.Phillips
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At the age of 15, Mary Lou Williams recalled jamming with a local band in Harlem at 3am when she noticed Louis Armstrong walking towards the stage while she was playing the piano.  Mr. Armstrong was so mesmerized and impressed, that at the end of the performance, she fondly recalled, "Louis picked me up and kissed me”. With that kiss, the ‘King of Jazz’ anointed Ms. Williams and put the Jazz world on notice that this woman was truly a remarkable talent. Ms. Williams was a Jazz great who overcame racial and gender inequality and her contribution should be heralded, noted and admired.

Beginnings

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8th, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, but was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the tender age of 6, she taught herself how to play the piano. This prodigy soon started to support her family by performing in the Pittsburgh area. She played so much and so well that she became known as "the little piano girl of East Liberty" (the neighborhood in Pittsburgh where she grew-up).

At age 13, she started to play for Duke Ellington’s early yet small band called the ‘Washingtonians’ and 4 years later she married saxophonist John Williams. The two newlyweds moved to Memphis, Tennessee where they assembled a band which featured Mary on piano.

In every musician's life, there are some obstacles to face, especially for a female musician living in era where men dominated the Jazz scene. Her husband for a time was the main breadwinner and some years later his band Andy Kirk's ‘Twelve Clouds of Joy’ accepted a longstanding engagement to play in Kansas City. Once in Kansas City, Mary joined the band and soon parlayed that into writing, arranging and composing songs for the group. Her most notable songs were ‘Cloudy’, ‘Little Joe from Chicago’ and ‘Walkin’ and Swingin’.

Recognition

Ms. Williams’ worked with some of Jazz’s greatest artists from playing piano, writing arrangements and composing songs for them. The names are a who’s who of legendary jazz greats such as Jack Kapp, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorey.

Mary was earning the respect from her male counterparts and everything seemed to be going well up until 1942, when John and Mary divorced. Mary decided to relocate back to Pittsburgh and front her own six-piece ensemble band with legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey. Needless to say, great success followed. She was soon reunited with Duke Ellington and began arranging tunes for him.

After remarrying and divorcing Harold ’Shorty’ Baker (whom she met in the Duke Ellington Band), she relocated to New York and accepted a gig at the famous downtown jazz bar- Cafe Society which led into a weekly radio show on WNEW called, Mary Lou Williams' Piano Workshop.

On that radio show she mentored and collaborated with bebop musicians, most notably Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. During early morning jam sessions, in her apartment, she helped them hone their craft to become better musicians. By garnering respect for her knowledge and advice she became the high priestess of the bebop movement in New York.

Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Mary Lou Williams, and Jack Teagarden, Mary Lou Williams' apartment, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947

Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Mary Lou Williams, and Jack Teagarden, Mary Lou Williams' apartment, New York - 1947 (Library of Congress)

Transformation & Achievements

Later on in her career, she took time off and lived in England where she went through a transformation in 1956 and converted to Catholicism. After she returned stateside, she devoted most of her time to the Bel Canto Foundation- a foundation that helped drug addicted musicians get back on their feet. Given her long absence, her protégé Dizzy Gillespie encouraged her to return to the stage to sit in and play with his band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. She did, and caught the bug again.

When Mary converted to Catholicism, she befriended a Catholic priest named Peter O'Brien and asked him to manage her return to the stage. As her manager, he booked festivals and television appearances. During that period, her music shifted, focusing on composing and arranging religious jazz music, hymns and spirituals.

Her crowning achievement came in 1977 where she played two performances with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor at Carnegie Hall.

Mary Lou Williams, Café Society (Downtown), New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947

Mary Lou Williams, Café Society (Downtown), New York - 1947 (Library of Congress)

Jazz Ambassador

In 1977, Duke University made Ms. Williams an artist-in residence. In this role, she directed the Duke Jazz Band and taught Jazz History along with her manager and friend - Father Peter O’Brien. In 1981, she died of bladder cancer at the age of 71. She was known as the ‘first Lady of Jazz keyboard’ but she should be remembered as a trailblazer who arranged and composed music for jazz greats of the day and was the first woman to front her own Jazz band in a male dominated profession.  Before Mary passed, recalling her career she said, “I did it, didn't I? Through muck and mud” (Morning Glory, 2001).

Source: Dahl, Linda. Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams (2001), p. 379.

 

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