unnamed-1Mary Lou Williams was born on May 8,1910 in Atlanta, GA, she grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. At the age of four she began playing piano, her first performance was around the age of six, she was known as the “little piano girl”. In 1916 she began booking her own gigs at dances and picnics to help support her other half-brothers and sisters. From 1923 to 1929, between the ages of 14-15, Williams met and played with Earl Hines Buck Washington, Art Tatum and many more while living in Pittsburgh. In 1925 she started touring with T.O.B.A. (Theatre Office Booking Agency). Mary Lou met John Williams at a performance in Cleveland with his band, the Syncopators. She married John in 1927 and moved to Memphis, TN.

Between 1929-1937 Williams moved to Kansas City, MO where she joined the Andy Kirk Band. She recorded many songs with them. That lead her to record her very first piano solos like “Night Life” and Drag ‘Em” in 1930 in Chicago. She also became a popular pianist for Andy Kirk’s band, the Twelve Clouds of Joy. Although she did not do many recordings, she wrote many songs for the Clouds of Joy as well as arrangements and compositions. She also collaborated with Dick Wilson to produce the Grove and wrote a blues for the Benny Goodman Band in 1937 which resulted in “Roll ‘Em”, a Boogie Woogie.

In 1942, after divorcing John Williams, she left the Clouds of Joy and moved back to Pittsburgh for a short period of time where she formed a six-piece band with

Harold “Shorty” Baker, which she left to join Duke Ellington’s orchestra. After joining the Ellington’s band, Baker and Williams married in New York. She traveled with Ellington, arranging several tunes for him. About a year later she left Baker, she then started to modernize her style and by the mid 40’s she was inspiring modernists who would lead the bebop revolution.  Her new style lead her to a recordings called by “In the land of Oo-Bla-dee”. She was leaders of many records like the Brunswick, Decca, Columbia and many more especially her own label (1970-1974).

From 1970 to 1977, Williams taught at Duke University North Carolina as a professor of jazz music and history. She received six honorary doctorates and wrote three jazz masses. Her first jazz mass was performed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, NY. In 1981 Williams died of bladder cancer. Dizzy Gillespie and Marian McPartl­and performed at her funeral , which was attended by thousands.


[1] 1996, Life At A Glance, Class file

[2] 1996, Retrospective, Class file

[3]  http://www.allmusic.com/artist/mary-lou-williams-mm0000859820

[4] http://www.npr.org/artist/15394732/mary-lou-williams