Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981).
Mary Lou Williams is one of the most celebrated women in jazz. Her career as a performing pianist spanned five decades. She worked extensively as a composer, writing for the bands of Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington. She recorded over a hundred records, and inspired the modern jazz of her era from the 1920s into the 1960s.
Her musical accomplishments seem to be counterbalanced by the high degree of suffering she endured throughout her life. Nevertheless, Mary Lou Williams’ determination and drive always lead her back to the piano, and in her later years, to her faith. As one commenter put it, “gaining meaning through suffering was, indeed, a major motif for Mary.”
Born in Atlanta in 1910, Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, as she was named at birth, was the second child of Virginia Riser and Joseph Scruggs. She was born out of wedlock, and rarely saw her father. Her mother, an alcoholic, was always out working in order to earn enough money to scrape by. Mary’s family was extremely poor and she recalled having to live shoeless until the age of three. Coincidentally, it was at this young age that Mary was discovered to be a musical prodigy. One day, her mother was playing the family Harmonium, a type of pump organ, when Mary, who was propped on her mother’s lap, leaned over, and without prompt, played the same melodies her mother had just finished.
As the story goes, her shocked mother dropped her. Not much is known about Mary Lou Williams’ childhood. She was an intensely private person as an adult, reluctant to recount stories of her youth in order to gain pity
from the listener. It is not that difficult, however, to imagine the difficulties of being a black female during the 1910s in America. Racism and sexism were facts of life. She remembered children calling her names, white people throwing bricks at her, white families driving by in cars and trying to kick her from their cars while she played in the street. In one memorable incident, a white local mother actually chased her away with a
butcher knife. Even light skinned black children mocked Mary because of her darker complexion.
When her family moved to Pittsburgh in the late 1910s, Mary’s problems didn’t seem to get any better. White families lived all around her, and the racism she endured in the south continued in the north. Her mother, who had to take a demanding job as a maid in order to make ends meet, had to hire a nanny to take care of Mary, who was still six or seven. The nanny was a cruel woman who would starve Mary, and when Mary complained of hunger, the nanny would make her chew tobacco and swallow the juice.
To make matters worse, the nanny would also tickle Mary to the point of spasms.
Music was Mary’s escape. She found out early that she could play almost
anything by ear. Complete strangers would stop off the street to listen to her practice. Eventually she began to play for the neighbors, making 50 to 75 cents a day. She heard the ragtime of pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, James P Johnson, and Fats Waller on piano rolls. When she was 10, she learned that she could slow down the rolls and transcribe her musical heroes. It was in this way that Mary learned to use a heavy left hand, copying the broken-tenths method employed by James P Johnson.
It did not take long for Mary’s talent to open up opportunities for her. For several years in Pittsburgh she was known as “the little piano girl.” She played for literally any function that was available, i.e. parties, church services, restaurants soirees, benefits, etc. Eventually a local vaudeville circuit picked her up, and she began to travel with them.
When the band went to Chicago, she met Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, and Fred “Buck” Washington (Armstrong’s pianist). In 1926, the band went to New York, and she got a chance to meet her idols – James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Fats Waller. In fact, the day she met Waller, she was at a club watching him, when the conductor called her up after the show. Williams, who was just over 12 years old, went to the piano and actually played a few of the songs from the previous set by ear. Waller was overjoyed.
Mary Lou Williams would describe the traveling musicians’ life during the 1920s as “an animal life.” Men constantly came on to her with little or no reservation. It was a time when men dominated women. In traveling bands, it was accepted that women would get beaten as part of their ‘training.’ Mary Lou struggled to fit in. Photographers encouraged her to dress like a man in band photos, though she always declined. Her first and second husbands, as well as boyfriends Don Byas and Ben Webster, were later reported to have been physically abusive.
Furthermore, the little money she made needed to be sent home; her mother and stepfather were unable to find work and were destitute. Also, as part of a vaudeville act, she occasionally had to perform in circus shows, employment that no white band would ever accept due to the terrible working conditions. The pay was terrible, and the food was even worse, and Mary recalled going without food for days.
However, music was, as it always would be, her escape. In 1927, she met Duke Ellington after playing with some members of his Washingtonians, Sonny Greer, Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton. Two years later, she started a part-time stint in Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, which would later become a full-time gig. Her ability to visualize music while hearing it naturally lead her into the role of composer, which she took on in full force with Andy Kirk’s band.
Mary had a knack for advanced harmony and rhythm, so Kirk initially had her dictate chords and rhythmic hits to him, which he would furiously transcribe. Later, when she became more familiar with horn ranges and limitations, he let her arrange and compose by herself. Her songs “Mary’s Idea,” “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Froggy Bottom” and “Cloudy” would gain her credibility not only within the band, but within the jazz writing community at large.
There is little doubt that Mary Lou’s compositional vision and pianistic ability single-handedly created the sound of the Clouds of Joy, and her talents were in demand. Benny Goodman used her arrangements on “The Count,” “Sweet Georgia Brown, and “Messa Stomp,” and her compositions “Camel Hop” and the popular “Roll ‘Em.” Jimmy Lunceford played an arrangement of her song “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” which was originally written for Andy Kirk’s band. Later in her career, she would even write for Duke Ellington, “Trumpets No End.”
Composing introduced a new set of struggles for Mary. It was almost always difficult for her to obtain any royalty payments on her compositions or arrangements. Record labels and others generally viewed Mary’s efforts as works for hire. In those days, smaller labels rarely gave out royalty payments, and larger companies often robbed their writers as well.
However, it is difficult to ignore the fact that jazz composition in the 20s and 30s was a collaborative effort. Bands would rehearse and work out arrangements together, yet only the leader would get the credit in the end. Musicians felt that even their repeated solos and rifts earned them arranging rights. Bandleaders, however, took all the credit. This was a common complaint, even against bandleaders as affluent as Duke Ellington.
Mary’s hit song “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” was blatantly ripped off in a song called “Black Coffee” which allegedly stole the entire blues section of “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” with a bridge added to make a new song. Although “Black Coffee” was later recorded by many other famous vocalists including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Anita O’Day among others, Mary Lou never saw a dime of the royalties. Instead, she had to settle for the crumbs, a measly $300 as a lump, onetime payment.
Leaving the Clouds of Joy was not a difficult decision for Mary Lou. The band at its height was traveling five to six thousand miles a week, a strenuous schedule even for an experienced musician. Furthermore, her relationship with the band leader was strained. Mary Lou kept up little pretense in hiding her various affairs with members of the band, and Kirk had come to resent her for that. In addition, Mary was getting bored
with the monotonous routine, as everyone was expected to play the same solos in the same order for every single performance. By the early 1940s the big band was losing its prominence, and in its place, the newer bop small group was gaining popularity.
Moreover, with Kirk’s band, Mary had made a name for herself in the jazz world.
No woman other than the vocalists Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald had
so dominated the swing scene or earned the genuine respect of bandleaders and musicians alike. Mary had seemingly broken through the
“glass ceiling” that had prevented many talented jazz women from
pursuing their professional goals.
(Kernodle, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, 81).
Jack Teagarden, Sarah Vaughan, Tadd Dameron, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Mel Torme, Hank Jones, and Dizzy Gillespie.
Piano players in particular gained the most from the regular jazz congregations at Mary’s apartment. They would usually gather around the small upright piano she kept in her living room, trading musical ideas and sharing each other’s new compositions. In fact, Mary would serve as a mentor to a few of them, such as Errol Garner, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Jazz Pianist Billy Taylor has since stated that both Powell and Monk’s sound on the piano changed significantly once they began their association with Mary Lou Williams. “She made them [Powell and Monk] both more aware of touch.”
The many of the pianists, she claimed, took different licks of hers and incorporated them into their own songs. Of course, all of these musicians made an influence on her playing and composing as well, but nevertheless, it is certain that Mary had a major hand in shaping some of the most creative geniuses at the forefront of modern jazz music in the 1940s.
The mid 1940s was a particularly prolific as well as suddenly tragic time in
Mary’s life. In 1945, she got her own weekly radio show named “Mary Lou Williams’ Piano Workshop.” Writing constantly for it, she composed her first multi-movement, full-length piece, “The Zodiac Suite” which garnered mixed reviews from critics. For a brief time she joined Benny Goodman’s band while continuing to serve the role of arranger/composer for the famed bandleader. In spite of all of her efforts, Mary Lou still struggled to find success in her compositional endeavors. Goodman consistently underpaid her for her work, and he never paid out royalties.
Also, a new song she had spent months writing and arranging for piano and choir (“Elijah and the Juniper Tree”) had proven too difficult for any group and was never performed. Frustrated and dealing with stress, Mary had a mini crisis – she received a private abortion in her small apartment in 1949, a decision that would cause her guilt for the rest of her life.
Mary Lou struggled to officially make it in New York. Bebop, a music which she had wholeheartedly embraced, had separated the ranks of jazz musicians. Musical experimentation had become the new norm, and modern music quickly shifted focus to West Coast Jazz, which Mary was not a part of. To make matters worse, many of the musicians she had previously helped in their time of need (Monk and Powell) simply
abandoned her when she was under financial duress. The male hierarchy, which was so oppressive in her early days traveling with vaudeville bands, had reared its ugly head again.
Around this same time, Mary was sued by a musician who claimed he was one of the original writers to her song “Satchel Mouth Baby” – a song which had done well and was one of the few to produce any sort of royalties for Mary. In order to avoid a long, legal battle, she was forced to settle. “It was a major blow to Mary professionally, personally, and monetarily.”
Reluctantly, Mary would accept an offer to play in Europe in order to make some money and perhaps gain some exposure. Europe was a haven of sorts for black jazz musicians during the early 1950s. Parisians, in particular, loved jazz. They lamented the African-American plight, and
were fascinated by the resulting Afro-American culture. Many musicians flocked there after World War II, including Sidney Bechet, Bill Coleman, Kenny “Klook” Clarke, and Don Byas. Moreover, the mass migration of musicians also included several females musicians. Both Lil Harden Armstrong and Hazel Scott, for example, moved to Paris and had much success there.
Mary did what she felt needed to be done to advance her career, and she saw Europe as an opportunity to make money. However, she wanted to return to America as soon as she could, as the decision to move overseas made her uneasy. Never before had she made a career choice based solely on finances. For example, she had once even turned down joining Louis Armstrong’s band because she had no desire to be a sideman.
However, Mary’s manager mislead her and stranded her in Europe, contractually obligating her to stay there and perform longer than she had originally planned. Nonetheless, Mary was initially met with some level of success. Her concerts at most venues were well attended, and she felt at home among the crowds who adored black performers. But eventually the hectic nature of Mary’s traveling schedule wore on her. She needed to rest in order to maintain the same level of stamina she was capable of in her younger years. Mary also had developed an unhealthy spending habit as a form of stress relief.
While her debt grew, she experienced a personal loss when friend, Garland Wilson, an American Pianist who had moved to Paris around the same time Mary had, died. Mary became unraveled. She was in a country she did not want to be in, under a mountain of debt, and was mourning the passing of Wilson. She commented on this time
in her life:
I was in my hotel room alone and all of a sudden it seemed as though
everything I had done up to then meant absolutely nothing. I was
despondent because everything seemed so meaningless and useless. Even
my beloved music, the piano I played, all seemed to have lost their appeal.
So had my former associates in show business, the musicians, the night
club owners and the wealthy men and women who were my patrons and
who had been dining and wining me—none of them seemed important any
more. There was no feeling for me to end it all. It was just despondency
based on the fact that I felt everything I had been doing was no good.
(Dahl, Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, 239-240).
As a result, in the middle of a set one night in, she simply stopped playing and walked out. That night in 1954 marked the beginning of a three year hiatus from regular performance and a time of deep, personal and spiritual evaluation.
Mary Lou Williams drew back from public performing, and devoted herself to reading the Psalms, prayer, and a life of relative solitude. For the first time in her life, she did not turn to music as a mode of escape. She, instead, chose to face her demons head on, trying to find a new direction in her life. She was able to get a ticket home to New York, but holed up in her apartment when she got there, shutting the jazz world out completely. She stopped playing piano, and did not listen to any radio or jazz recordings.
Her financial situation became so dire however, that she was eventually forced to accept the occasional gig in order to support herself. Mary eventually decided to seek out a church, and after months of searching,
found Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic Church located on 142nd street. She attended her new church daily, sometimes spending hours fasting and praying. She quit her excessive spending habits and began to help others. She gave away money, clothes and food. She bought groceries and cared for musician friends of hers that had drug problems.
Even her speech changed, no longer focused on music, but on God, prayer, and the problems of this world. Her entire life was different.158
Mary’s big return to music happened at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. It was a long time coming. Dizzy, among others, had been a friend to Mary throughout her three year pause from music. He had always tried to get her back into music, but had never succeeded.
A Jesuit Priest named Anthony Crowley, who had befriended Mary, was able to convince her to return. “’You’re an artist,’ he told her. ‘You belong at the piano and writing music. It’s my business to help people through the Church and your business to help people through music.’”
After Newport, Mary continued to accept playing opportunities. Although she preferred to avoid nightclubs, she needed money, and many new clubs and restaurants were calling her to headline. Something had changed for Mary, however. She no longer sought out work to advance her name, compositions, or career. She did so to save money that would be used to start what would later become the Bel Canto Foundation, an
organization that existed to provide emotional and medical aid to drug addicted musicians.
This was an incredibly personal issue for Mary, after watching a great number of her friends from New York die as a result from drug abuse, including saxophonist Charlie Parker (1955) and pianist Tadd Dameron (1965). Wardell Grey, a saxophonist who had recorded a number of times with Mary, was beaten to death by gangsters for not paying a debt that had mounted because of drug addiction. Acclaimed vocalist Billie Holiday succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver due to years of alcohol and drug abuse. Mary took initiative and founded the Bel Canto Foundation.
During this time, Mary was also able to find a renewed level of peace while she was playing.
Before, I was almost wasted…now I can express myself better without
“hoggin’ up”—making mistakes. My thinking is much better. I can really
play from my mind through my heart to my fingertips, and that’s what jazz
(Dahl, Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams, 270).
The early 1960s were a time of political change in America. The black
community had shown resistance to the racist policies from the earlier part of the century and had seen positive change. Desegregation was beginning to take place, and freedom marches as well as nationally organized boycotts were regularly scheduled. Jazz music reflected this wave of change. ‘Free Jazz’ musicians musically represented their feelings of political and social unrest. Many jazz musicians felt free to experiment.
Mary disliked such movements as she felt that they ignored the African roots of jazz and the overall African-American experience which gave the music unity and originality. The 1960s was also a time of change in the Catholic Church. The church had observed the changes in popular music, and in an effort to reflect this, they passed a few ordinances which allowed for a more modern representation of music in their worship services. This reformation within church policy opened the door for Mary to write jazz
liturgical music. She quickly got to work, writing a hymn for Martin De Porres, an Afro-Peruvian priest who had been recently canonized (the first non-Caucasian man to be given the distinction).
The piece was premiered in November 1963 at St. Francis Xavier Church, and a month later was performed for the mainstream public at Philharmonic Hall with Dizzy Gillespie. Although it garnered mixed reviews, Mary continued to write Sacred Jazz music and eventually had enough to material to record her first Sacred Jazz Album, Mary
Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes.
Black Christ of the Andes was diverse. A few tracks included a mix of choir and piano, other tracks had various small ensembles, and one was solo piano. Mary’s playing is controlled, soulful, blues driven, and at some points impressionistic.
And although Mary went to great lengths to promote the album, it received mixed reviews from critics and did not prove to be a financial success. However, discouraged she was, she continued to perform publicly in various festivals and clubs, playing selections from her recent album whenever she could.
After a particularly successful Sacred Jazz concert in New York, a local Catholic School hired Mary to teach music classes. While there, she was urged by many priests to write a sacred mass. This mass, the first of the three, was entitled Mass and was premiered in Pittsburgh’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. This mass set the standard for many other Catholic Churches. Churches that were on the fence about the inclusion of non-traditional Church instruments, now felt free to include them. Secondly, Mary’s mass
validated Black Liturgy within the church, a huge accomplishment for the late 1960s.
Mary’s second mass was entitled Mass for Lenten Season, and was
commissioned by the local Catholic Churches. By now Mary’s purpose in writing her masses, was to increase the appeal of Sacred Jazz music. It was performed throughout the Lenten season in 1968. Mary included the hymn “We Shall Overcome” in tribute to the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. The concert series was extremely popular, and invigorated Mary in continuing her efforts to spread the appeal of Sacred Jazz.
In August 1968, Mary left for a performance tour of Europe. She hoped that she would be given an audience with the Pope and be able to give a concert for him. In January 1969, Mary went to Rome. She soon learned that she would not be able to perform in the Vatican, but instead performed in another chapel located in the heart of Rome to huge crowds that had anticipated her coming. Soon after, Mary was commissioned by a member of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace to write a
mass for peace and justice.
After returning to the United States, Mary continued work on her third mass. She “wanted this mass, more than her previous religious works, to address the contemporary social problems of racism, war, and lack of compassion.”
She also wanted to be able to perform it during a Mass service, something which she had been denied while in Rome. She set her sights on St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, but realized that it would be unlikely for her to ever perform there.
Her third mass, Mass for Peace, originally debuted at the Holy Family Church in New York in 1969. It served as a memorial for the assassination of Kenyan leader Tom Mboya, and focused on the making the world a better place. Whereas Mary’s previous vocal compositions were ambitious and employed complex harmonies, her Mass for Peace was much simpler in focus, reflecting the message of the lyrics. Although the concert attendees loved the music, it had no affect on Church officials at St. Patrick’s.
Mary acted accordingly and rearranged the music of this third mass to fit in a jazz-rock vein. She had hoped that finding a younger audience would encourage Church officials to let her perform the work at St. Patrick’s. Mary chose to record this reorganized mass and the result was a 1970 album called Music for Peace. The album, like many of her previous albums, was not a commercial success initially, but after a well attended
performance at Columbia University and many positive reviews by critics, Mary’s record sales significantly increased.
For a time, Mary went back to performing secular jazz regularly in New York. She began a regular gig at the Cookery, playing five nights a week from 8:00 pm to 1:00 am. To her surprise, she was met with a relative amount of success as leader that seemed to elude her earlier in her career. In 1971 she recorded a solo piano album called From the Heart, which was wildly applauded among the critics of the time. One downbeat reviewer said that “after a two month of hearing ‘From the Heart’ regularly, my
momentary enthusiasm has become permanent admiration. This indispensable recording is a FIVE STAR album.”
She received the Guggenheim Fellowship for Music Composition which would provide her with a significant amount of money to fund her arranging/composing. She also began getting offers to tour and perform extensively. In the mid 1970s, she recorded the album Zoning, a mixture of sacred and secular tracks. It was met with wide acclaim, even being nominated for a Grammy in 1975. Her jazz career after fifty years was still booming. Clearly, the secular side to Mary’s career seemed reinvigorated by her work in the sacred field.
The struggle continued to get her mass performed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Church leaders were still hesitant to incorporate secular musical styles into a sacred Mass setting. In the meantime, Mary’s mass had been renamed Mary Lou’s Mass and performed with the addition of a dancing company at the New York City center in 1971.
Mary’s new manager, a Jesuit priest, made a point of booking performances of Mary Lou’s Mass wherever Mary was (schools, churches, recreation centers, etc.). Enthusiasm for Mary’s sacred music was ever escalating. People adored the masses everywhere they were played.
Finally, in 1975, Mary was given permission to perform Mary Lou’s Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. This performance of jazz liturgy was truly an historic event. Over three thousand people packed into the church. Regular Mass customs were followed; first the readings from Psalms and Isaiah (chosen for the Tuesday of the first week of Lent) were read, followed by a homily by Mary’s manager.
Mary then conducted her group from the piano to an amazing performance. John W. Donohue, S.J. who wrote for America commented that Mary Lou’s drew “’waves of applause and a general air of exhilaration that animates a crowed when people know they’ve shared a momentous and uplifting experience.’”
Another commenter said that the performance was “’an inspiring, lovely religious experience.’” Mary herself spoke after the performance saying “American’s don’t realize how important jazz is. It’s healing for the soul. It should be played everywhere—in churches, nightclubs, everywhere. We have to use every place we can.” 169 Mary would record Mary Lou’s
Mass that same year.
The significance of what Mary had accomplished was and still is astounding. Obviously it was the culmination of years of work and the achievement of obtaining a personal goal, but it can be considered much more than that. The church had finally integrated black culture into its normal routine. St Patrick’s was not a minor church either—it was a major Catholic establishment in the heart of one of the biggest cities in the country.
…the success of the performance at St. Patrick’s was not simply a
question of the acceptability of jazz. It represented the culmination of
Mary’s efforts to alter the traditional attitudes of the Catholic Church
toward its black parishioners. Although the history of black Catholics in
American can be traced back to before the Civil War, the church
leadership had not sought to fully integrate black parishioners into the
priesthood and church leadership. Mary knew that getting this work
performed in the stronghold of New York Catholicism meant not only the
acceptance of jazz as a viable art form but the acknowledgement of the
cultural and spiritual contributions of black Catholics such as herself.
(Kernodle, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams, 255).
Shortly after her St. Patrick’s performance, Mary became one the recognized figures of jazz in the public eye. Radio and television talk programs begin inviting her on to speak about her life and music. CBS ran a show in 1976 which featured Mary talking about her faith as well as selections from her latest mass.
The poverty and misfortune that had pervaded so much of her life were now things of the past. She was earning more money than she ever had and was able to live frugally, avoiding debt. Mary lived the remainder of her life in Durham, North Carolina. She had been approached by Frank Tirro, jazz historian and saxophonist, with the hopes that she would accept a professorship at Durham University. After some deliberation, Mary agreed (no doubt persuaded by a $100,000 a year salary). She taught jazz history, jazz improvisation and a jazz ensemble. Her jazz history course was so popular that at one point over seven hundred students signed up for the class. Mary was amazed. She herself had never graduated from high school, had constantly been denied royalties and payments, had been victimized because of the color of her skin and gender, and now she had a secure, salarybased job which allowed her to travel and perform as she wished.
In 1979, Mary found out that she had bladder cancer. She continued to teach, travel and perform, but her physical condition worsened. She experienced daily, excruciating pain which stemmed from the spreading cancer into her spine. Mary knew that her death was imminent, so she started the Mary Lou Williams Foundation, an organization that provided scholarships to children that wanted jazz instruction from established musicians. Eventually, she was no longer able to teach, and she stayed at
home, writing and playing. She died on May 28th, 1981.
Mary Lou Williams – Greatest Hits (FULL ALBUM)
01 Drag ‘Em 0:11 02 From This Moment On 4:01 03 Little Joe 7:41 04 Lonely Moments 13:33 05 Lullaby of the Leaves 16:32 06 Blue Skies 20:17 07 Cloudy 22:31 08 How High The Moon 24:50 09 Libra 27:03 10 St Louis Blues [Not present in this video. If you hear it, please add a reply.] 11 Roll Em 29:16 12 Mary’s Boogie 32:05 13 The Man I Love 34:40 14 The Surrey With The Fringe On Top 42:35 15 These Foolish Things Remind Me of You 47:15
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