Mary Lou Williams

Although sometimes called the top female jazz musician, Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) was simply one of the great jazz pianists of all time, no matter one’s sex. She was one of only two stride pianists of the 1920s (along with Duke Ellington) to evolve and stay very modern throughout her lengthy career.

Born in Atlanta and growing up in Pittsburgh, she taught herself the piano by ear and was playing in public by the time she was six, working in vaudeville from the age of 13. Married to saxophonist John Williams at an early age, she made her recording debut with the Synco Jazzers in 1927. When her husband joined Andy Kirk’s Orchestra in Kansas City in 1929, Williams came along, writing arrangements, recording with the band, and eventually becoming Kirk’s pianist. Much of the success of the Andy Kirk big band was due to Williams’s arrangements and her stride piano solos.

After leaving Kirk in 1942, Mary Lou Williams gradually modernized her style, embraced bebop, and became a close friend of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, both of whom she encouraged. She wrote the adventurous “Zodiac Suite,” contributed her bebop fable “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” to the Dizzy Gillespie big band, and lived in Europe during 1952-1954. Williams became a Catholic and wrote religious works but gradually came back to jazz. By the 1970s, her concerts often found her playing in every jazz style from James P. Johnson to McCoy Tyner while always sounding like herself.

Late in her career, Mary Lou Williams recorded for the Pablo label. Embraced is a very unusual duet piano concert with the avant-garde innovator Cecil Taylor. My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me has solos and duets including blues performed in different styles. 1978’s Solo Recital has the pianist exploring her roots while typically looking ahead.

Mary Lou Williams never stopped growing and evolving.