Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981)
Updated: Aug 7, 2021
Biography courtesy of Missouri Valley Special Collection, Kansas City Public Library & David Conrads, edited by Nina Cherry
All photographs courtesy of the LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries
In a remarkably productive career that spanned a half century, Mary Lou Williams established herself as a pianist, composer, and arranger. She is widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians ever, and is one of the only woman instrumentalists included in the jazz canon. She worked in Kansas City from 1929 to 1942, during the heyday of the city's jazz scene. Long after achieving international recognition, she continued to credit Kansas City as her musical birthplace.
Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was born in Atlanta in 1910 and grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. A child prodigy, she taught herself to play the piano by ear. She was playing in public by the age of six and was a professional musician by her early teens. In 1927, she married saxophonist John Williams. The couple lived briefly in Memphis then moved to Oklahoma City, where John Williams joined Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy. In 1928, the Clouds moved to Kansas City.
Although Williams had already been subbing and arranging frequently for the Clouds, Kirk was hesitant to let a woman officially join his band. By 1930, Williams had become a regular member of Kirk's band. At a time when there were very few women instrumentalists in jazz, she was soon recognized as Kirk's top soloist, and the band's success in the 1930s was due in large part to Williams's distinct arrangements, compositions, and solo performances. She was responsible for some of the band's biggest hits, including "Froggy Bottom," "Walkin' and Swingin'," and "Mary's Idea." In addition to her work with the Clouds, Williams provided arrangements for many of the top bandleaders of the swing era including Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.
Williams left Kirk's band and Kansas City in 1942 and moved to New York City. She formed her own small group with her second husband, trumpeter Harold Baker, and then joined (and even arranged for) Duke Ellington's band for a short time. In 1945, Williams's composed the Zodiac Suite. This work received much acclaim and was highly influential to the development of bebop.
She took a hiatus from performing in 1954, but resumed her career in 1957. During this time she converted to Catholicism, and many of her works after this were religious. These sacred works, particularly Mary Lou’s Mass and Black Christ of the Andes, have received quite a bit of scholarly attention, especially in recent years. Williams remained active up until her death in 1981, and was an artist-in-residence at Duke University from 1977–81.
Williams returned to Kansas City in 1980 to receive an honorary degree from Rockhurst College. She also returned for the Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival and A section of 10th Street, between The Paseo and Woodland Avenue, was renamed Mary Lou Williams Lane, in her honor. Unfortunately, Williams's swing era compositions and arrangements remain largely overlooked, despite the significant impact they had on the Kansas City style.
If you are interested in learning more about Williams, check out Tammy L. Kernodle's book, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams.
This recording of "Mary's Idea" showcases Mary Lou's skills as not only an arranger and composer, but as a pianist.
Learn more about Williams's arrangements and compositions from this time. While popular music like this was not what Williams preferred to arrange for, it was necessary in the Depression era to survive.
Coplon, Jeffrey R. “Mary Lou Williams Took Off Fast in the Wide-Open Days of Swing.” The
Kansas City Times, 12 June 1981.
Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Kernfeld, Barry, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
Russell, Ross. Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest. Berkley: University of California Press, 1971.