Blog Post

Mary Lou Williams: An American Jazz Legend for All

Feb 15, 2023 By Whitney Keitt

Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, better known as Mary Lou Williams, was an American Jazz pianist, arranger and composer. In the Jazz world, Mary Lou Williams is regarded as a Swing and Bebop Jazz Icon and even had a jazz song named after her ability to ‘swing with the band’.

Mary Lou Williams rests against a piano in her Harlem apartment in 1958. The framed image is of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Photo by Dennis Stock.

Williams was born May 10th 1910, to Virginia Winn and was the second of 11 children. She revealed her musical abilities at the age of four years old, by playing music by ear. When her mother and step father moved the family to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Williams experienced traumatic racism from her neighbors who threw bricks through her family’s window until they heard a young Mary Lou Williams play the piano.

Williams gained notoriety in her Pittsburgh neighborhood as the girl who plays piano and was hired to play at parties at the age of 6. At the age of 15, Mary Lou Williams became a professional musician and played with her idol, Lovie Austin, as well as other big Jazz stars.

Mary Lou Williams at piano with microphone. Photo courtesy of Jazz.FM91

As she began to gain popularity, she noticed that many of her Jazz friends were losing themselves in drugs and alcohol. As a woman of faith, Williams would encourage her close jazz friends to seek religious council. After a performance in France 1954, Mary Lou Williams stepped away from Jazz and took a three year hiatus. Some speculate that the hiatus may have been caused by the death of her close friend Charlie Parker. In those three years, Williams converted to Catholicism and devoted much of her time to attending Mass and finding her way back to jazz. Mary Lou Williams had help of Father John Crowley, Father Anthony, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, Jack Teagarden, Dixie Bailey, Hank Jones, Tadd Dameron, and Milt Orent, Mary Lou Williams' apartment, New York, N.Y., ca. Aug. 1947. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1960, Mary Lou Williams wrote her first Mass hymn named ‘Black Christ of the Andes’, which was based on the Peruvian saint Martin de Porres. She went on to create more Mass hymns and performed them from 1960-1970. Many of her hymns were used to show how jazz and secular music could work to bring the youth into churches as well as raise money for starting secular jazz programs for inner-city youth.

Mary Lou Williams believed she was a ‘soul’ player, who spoke to people’s spirit through her music. Until her death in 1981, Mary Lou Williams continued to elevate jazz music, encouraging young people to learn more about jazz and creating the Mary Lou Williams foundation.

Article by Whitney Keitt, SEA Program Manager