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Mary Lou Williams, 'Perpetually Contemporary'

Mary Lou Williams, ca. 1946.
William P. Gotlieb
Library of Congress via flickr.com
Mary Lou Williams, ca. 1946.

Composer, arranger and pianist Mary Lou Williams achieved and maintained a status that many women in jazz found elusive: unwavering respect from male colleagues who regarded her as a musical equal.

A swinging, percussive player, Williams was a major force in the development of Kansas City swing in the 30s, deeply involved in the bebop revolution of the 40s, and had a great influence on pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Whether working with big bands or with her own small groups, Williams' music was always adventurous and she was an innovator, not afraid to stretch out and try new things.

She was born Mary Louise Scruggs (later Burley) in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1910, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Williams began to play piano at the tender age of six. By the time she was 16, she was already in demand and played with many big-name bands as they passed through town. Williams explored the entire school of music, from boogie-woogie and swing into bebop and modern jazz, and became one of the most important female figures in the history of instrumental jazz.

In 1927, she married saxophonist John Williams and went on the road with his band, ending up in Kansas City. There, her husband joined Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy and later, so did Williams. As chief arranger and pianist for Kirk, Williams was immortalized in the song, "The Lady Who Swings the Band." She also wrote arrangements for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, and Jimmie Lunceford, whose band helped make Williams' composition "What's Your Story, Morning Glory" a hit. Later, in 1945, she recorded "Zodiac Suite," her first extended work.

In 1963, weaving her newfound religious interest into her music, she made the album "Black Christ of the Andes." In the 1970s, with "Mary Lou's Mass," Williams mingled the vocabulary of jazz with elements of rhythm and blues, spirituals and gospel music. Williams' willingness to keep her music fresh, and her openness to modern approaches, led to a collaboration with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor: a special two-piano concert at Carnegie Hall in 1977, which they titled "Embraced."

Mary Lou Williams' career spanned more than a half-century, and she created music full of everlasting beauty, inspiration and surprise. "You know, somebody said that jazz is the sound of surprise?" said David Baker. "Who better epitomizes that throughout her career than Mary Lou Williams."

Her achievements as a composer, arranger, and bandleader earned her the highest level of respect from her peers. Even today Williams is, simply, one of our greatest treasures.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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