This Day In History: May 8th
In a field that was known for being dominated by men, Mary Lou Williams was able to leave her mark on the jazz world for more than five decades. In addition to being a renowned jazz pianist, Mary Lou Williams acquired other titles such as composer and arranger over the course of her career.
She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia, but was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her musical talents were evident from an early age, and she became known in her neighborhood for her piano performances. By the age of 15, Williams was a working musician. She performed with the likes of Duke Ellington and the Washingtonians. In 1925, she joined saxophonist John Williams to become a part of his band.
The two married in 1927 and relocated to Oklahoma City. She worked as a solo pianist and a music arranger until the 1930s. Williams also decided to go by “Mary Lou” and recorded her own jazz albums. During this time she solidified herself as a jazz artist by helping to develop the Kansas City swing sound of the 1930s. She continued to expand her reach by taking on the role of mentor to fellow jazz legends such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
Her talents were not limited to the United States, and she spent time overseas performing in Europe. However, as the 1950s progressed, Williams found herself in need of a change so she decided to take a break from music and performing. Williams converted to Catholicism while on hiatus and began to embrace her new faith. Her love for music brought her back to the stage in 1957 when she performed at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Much of her later work focused on infusing her spirituality into the music. She began creating religious jazz recordings like Black Christ of the Andes which was done as a tribute to an Afro-Peruvian priest. In 1977, Williams became an artist-in-residence at Duke University. She was able to teach a new generation of jazz lovers about its history, and she served as the Director of the Duke Jazz Ensemble.
Mary Lou Williams was celebrated for her impressive piano abilities and was even a source of inspiration for many of the greats to come after her. Williams died on May 28, 1981.