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Mary Lou Williams began her career as Pittsburgh's Little Piano Girl in the 1920s. She went on to become one of jazz music's great composers and humanitarians in a career that spanned six decades. Today is the hundredth anniversary of Mary Lou Williams' birth, and tribute concerts across the country are marking the occasion.

Lara Pere forgive me Lara Pellegrinielli reports.

LARA PELLEGRINIELLI: It's late on a rainy Monday night, and a quartet is swinging hard in a hole in the wall in Times Square.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINIELLI: The crowd is sparse, but the dozen or so patrons in the upstairs backroom are listening intently.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. VIRGINIA MAYHEW (Saxophonist): Thank you so much. This is our debut performance of the music of Mary Lou Williams.

PELLEGRINIELLI: In a few weeks, saxophonist Virginia Mayhew will take this quartet to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival.

Ms. MAYHEW: I think she is probably the greatest female jazz player that ever lived. But I look forward to when the female part is irrelevant.

PELLEGRINIELLI: In jazz, where the ranks of instrumentalists are still dominated by men, Williams' status as an early female pioneer has turned her into an unwitting symbol.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINIELLI: While female performers tend to be on their guard against tokenism, they're clear in their feelings about Williams and her place as a role model.

Ms. GERI ALLEN (Pianist): Her fearlessness and self-determination is an inspiration, when you see a person who is so clearly confident in their voice.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Pianist Geri Allen played the role of Mary Lou Williams in the Robert Altman film "Kansas City."

Ms. ALLEN: Because of her and her excellence, and because of her commitment to this very pristine level of artistry, my generation of players that are women don't have to go through that kind of resistance. I can't imagine it, tell you the truth.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINIELLI: Williams' commitment started early. As a kid in Pittsburgh, she was playing was practically from the time she could walk. Her mother practiced on an old-fashioned pump organ, with the toddler in her lap to keep her out of mischief, as Williams recalled in a 1976 radio interview.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. MARY LOU WILLIAMS (Jazz Pianist/Composer): One day while she was pumping the organ, my fingers beat her fingers to the keyboard and began playing. And it must have been great, because she ran out and got the neighbors to listen to it.

PELLEGRINIELLI: Mary Elfrieda Scruggs began working professionally when she was 7. She was touring by 14. At 16, she married the saxophonist John Williams, and the couple became band mates in Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy.

(Soundbite of a song, "Lady Who Swings The Band")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) It's the lady who swings the band.

PELLEGRINELLI: Working not only as the band's pianist but its arranger and composer, Williams quickly attracted attention. Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman all asked her to write for them.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BILLY TAYLOR (Pianist): She was one of the swingin'-est people that I ever played with. I mean, she would just swing you into bad health.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PELLEGRINELLI: Pianist Billy Taylor was one of the musicians who hung out at Williams' Harlem apartment in the 1940s, which served as an incubator for the new style of music called bebop. Unlike others of her generation, Williams stayed on the cutting edge, says Taylor. To acknowledge her contributions, he later founded the jazz festival in her name at the Kennedy Center.

Mr. TAYLOR: She felt that people didnt realize the certain things that she did. She said, well, you know, I've done certain things that I think are pretty special. Why dont people give me some credit for doing these things, you know? She didnt say that very often, but she said it enough to let me know that it was something that she didnt really care for and would like to do something about.

PELLEGRINELLI: In the 1950s, Williams stopped playing and experienced a profound religious conversion. She was baptized to Catholic at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier in the West Village.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible)

PELLEGRINELLI: Father Peter O'Brien, Williams' longtime friend and manager, says her spiritual convictions and her music were part of the same, deep interior life.

Father PETER O'BRIEN (Executive Director, The Mary Lou Williams Foundation): Mary was a creative artist. She would not be looking for anything in the church. She was looking for God. God.

PELLEGRINELLI: The New York Philharmonic had already performed her "Zodiac Suite" in 1945. When she was coaxed back to the piano in the late '50s, she devoted herself to such works as "Black Christ of the Andes," dedicated to Martin De Porres, the first black Catholic saint. She also composed Masses.

(Soundbite of music)

PELLEGRINELLI: Before she succumbed to cancer in 1981, Williams did charitable work, rehabilitating drug-addicted musicians and creating a jazz foundation in her name. She did not, however, like being lumped in with women jazz musicians, and Father O'Brien has an idea in keeping with Williams' spirit.

Father O'BRIEN: There was some question this year, at the festival's 15th anniversary of - Mary Lou's 100th birthday, that it would simply be called the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. I mean, they dont say the Duke Ellington Men in Jazz Festival.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PELLEGRINELLI: For now, however, the name remains the same. Maybe next year.

For NPR News, I'm Lara Pellegrinelli in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You can celebrate 100 years of Mary Lou Williams with archival performances at our website, nprmusic.org.

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