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Looking back at the life of Mary Lou Williams, the Lady Who Swings the Band

Mary Lou Williams in 1947
Library of Congress via Flickr
Mary Lou Williams in 1947

In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues. Here’s Robin Lloyd’s appreciation of jazz giant Mary Lou Williams.

Pianist/composer/arranger Mary Lou Williams would sit on her mother’s lap at the piano and pick out the melodies she heard.  She was 4 years old at the time.

By 1925, she was a full-time working musician.

Mary Lou took part in every era of jazz development, from the 1920s through the 1970s.

She was an expert stride and boogie woogie pianist. 

She helped develop the Kansas City swing sound of the 1930s when she joined Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy.

She became known as the Lady Who Swings the Band — because she wrote such great music and arrangements for most of the swing era bands: Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey and Louis Armstrong, to name a few.

She mentored some of the music’s most famous innovators, such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. 

In the early 1940s, this group of young musicians who would come to call themselves beboppers began deconstructing the musical foundations of jazz. 

They did most of their experimenting at jam sessions held at Monroe's Uptown House and Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. More often than not, they’d end up at Mary Lou Williams’ apartment after the gig, to continue their explorations, re-assessing musical conventions and creating something new. Mary contributed a few bop-style compositions, including “In the Land of Oh Bla Dee,” which she gave to Dizzy Gillespie for his Be Bop Big Band.

You can hear the bop influence in her own 12-movement “Zodiac Suite.”

Working as much as she could through the 1940s and into the 1950s, Mary Lou one day found herself burnt out. Worn and tired of being taken advantage of and abused by husbands, managers and club owners, Mary Lou walked off the stage during a performance in Paris in 1954, and did not play music again until 1957.

When she returned to the piano, she created Mary Records, one of the first record companies founded by a woman.

Her three years in self-imposed exile were years of reflection for Mary. She turned to the Catholic Church, and soon was writing liturgical music for jazz ensembles, a cantata called “Black Christ of the Andes,” and “Music for Peace,” better known as “Mary Lou’s Mass.” It was a landmark recording that addressed many of the social issues of the 1960s and 1970s.  Newsweek called it "…an encyclopedia of black music, richly represented from spirituals to bop to rock."

In the 1970s, Mary taught at Duke University and became a public advocate for jazz and its central place in American culture.

"Americans don't realize how important jazz is," she told The New York Post. "It's healing for the soul. It should be played everywhere — in churches, nightclubs, everywhere. We have to use every place we can."

Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in 1981. Along with her outstanding musical legacy, she left us the Mary Lou Williams Foundation to advance the public knowledge of the Art Form of Jazz. 

Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in 1983. 

And The Kennedy Center’s annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival will celebrate its Silver Anniversary, its 25th year in May this year.

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.