Jazz Profiles from NPR
Mary Lou Williams 1910-1981
Produced by Margaret Howze

Mary Lou Williams  

Composer, arranger, and pianist Mary Lou Williams achieved and maintained a status that many women in jazz have found elusive: unwavering respect from her male colleagues and treatment as a musical equal. A swinging, percussive player, she was a major force in the development of Kansas City swing and the bebop revolution.

Listen to Mary Lou Williams' former personal manager Peter O'Brien and jazz educator David Baker talk about the greatness of Mary Lou Williams

Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs (later Burley) in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 8, 1910, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she began to play piano at age six. By the time she was 16, Williams was already well known on Pittsburgh's lively club scene and she was sitting in with many of the country's most popular big bands as they passed through town.

Listen to Mary Lou Williams recall her times spent with bebop pioneers Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell


In 1927, Mary Lou married saxophonist John Williams and went on the road with his band, ending up in Kansas City. There, her husband joined Andy Kirk (left) and his Twelve Clouds of Joy and soon Williams signed on as well. She became the band's arranger, immortalized in song as "The Lady Who Swings the Band."

Listen to Bandleader and jazz educator David Baker explain why Williams' position in Andy Kirk's band was unprecendented

Williams also arranged for for Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, as well as Jimmy Lunceford, whose band helped make Williams' composition "What's Your Story, Morning Glory" a hit. In 1945, she recorded her first extended work, "The Zodiac Suite."

Listen to Mary Lou Williams talk about the conception of "The Zodiac Suite"

Weaving a newfound spirituality into her music, Williams recorded the 1963 album Black Christ of the Andes, and in the 1970s she recorded Mary Lou's Mass. On that album's title track, she seamlessly blended the vocabulary of jazz with elements of rhythm and blues, spirituals and gospel music. Her willingness to keep her music fresh, and openness to modern approaches led to a a special two-piano collaborative concert at Carnegie Hall in 1977 with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor called Embraced.

Listen to pianist Hilton Ruiz recall when he attended Mary Lou's Mass


Mary Lou Williams' career spanned over a half-century, and she created music full of everlasting beauty, inspiration and surprise. Her achievements as a composer, arranger, and bandleader earned her respect of the highest level from her peers. Even today she is, simply, one of our greatest treasures.

Mary Lou passed away in 1981 at the age of 71, leaving behind a pioneering legacy of jazz.


View the Mary Lou Williams show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

More InfoRead the review of Linda Dahl's Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams

More InfoRead the synopsis of Jazz Profiles: Women In Jazz, Part 1

More InfoRead the synopsis of Jazz Profiles: Women In Jazz, Part 2


More InfoBrowse the PBS Ken Burns JAZZ Web page on women in jazz