Mary Lou Williams
Jazz for the Soul
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She was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 8, 1910. Her mother was Virginia Riser; her father was Joseph Scruggs. As part of the great black migration, Virginia traveled north, somewhere between 1914 and 1916, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Family lore has it that Mary Lou made the journey in the horn of an RCA Victor Victrola. Virginia played on an old-fashioned pump organ, often holding Mary Lou on her lap to keep her out of mischief. One day while her mother was pumping up the organ, little Mary Lou’s fingers beat hers to the keyboard and picked out a melody. Mary Lou was three. Later on, in her lectures and demonstrations, she would point out the value of learning through observation: “I watch,” she would tell her students.
By the age of six, Mary Lou was professional enough to be known throughout Pittsburgh as “The Little Piano Girl,” and was playing parties for white-society people, such as the Olivers and the Mellons. As a youngster, she sat in with the Pittsburgh Union Musicians’ Band, and she played with Earl Hines’s musicians and McKinney’s Cotton Pickers when those bands were in town.
Early in 1924, a black vaudeville show, Buzz n’ Harris’s Hits and Bits, came to town. Its piano player went missing. In the search for a replacement, Harris was led out to East Liberty, the black suburb of Pittsburgh, where he found her playing hopscotch. She played the show that night, and traveled with the show that summer, mostly in the Midwest and South, on the. Theater Owners’ Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, which consisted of rundown vaudeville houses owned by whites but catering to blacks. The performers were black. In semi-proper circumstances, the TOBA was referred to as Tough on Black Acts. When things got down and dirty, it was called Tough on Black Asses.
The pit band was led by John Williams, who played alto and baritone sax. Mary Lou (then surnamed Burley, after a step-father) remained with Hits and Bits for a good while. She married Williams in Memphis in 1926, traveled on the B. F. Keith Circuit with Seymour and Jeanette in big-time vaudeville where the theaters were large and glamorous and the acts were white. The only other black act Mary Lou recalled on the circuit was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She recorded with John Williams’s Syncopators in 1926 and 1927 in Chicago She stayed behind in Memphis to continue leading the band while Williams went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to play with Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy. After a short period, she rejoined him. Replacing a missing pianist, she recorded with the Clouds of Joy in 1929 and 1930, though she was not yet an official member of the band. She composed her first arrangements (“Messa Stomp” and “Mary’s Idea”) for these recording sessions, and was heard to full advantage as a strong two-fisted swinging stride pianist with the band. She made the first recording under her own name in 1930: “Nite Life,” a brilliant exposition of stride piano on side A and “Drag ‘Em,” a blues, on side B. Thus, from the first recording under her own name, she established the fact that she would approach music in diverse ways.
Mary Lou Williams remained with Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy from 1929 to 1942—the bulk of the swing era in jazz. Not only did she play piano, appearing on more than 180 recordings with Kirk’s orchestra, she also composed and arranged the music for many of those sides. Her compositions of the period include “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Froggy Bottom,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory,” “Steppin’ Pretty,” and the beautiful “Big Jim Blues.” In 1937, she wrote the boogie-woogie-based “Roll ‘Em” for Benny Goodman’s big band which became something of a hit. Decca also recorded Williams separately as a pianist with rhythm accompaniment in 1936 and 1938. The title of one of them, “Swinging for Joy,” is just right.
In 1942, Mary Lou Williams left Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy and returned to Pittsburgh to stay at her sister’s house. She then formed a septet that included the trumpeter Harold Baker and a youthful Pittsburgh native, the drummer Art Blakey. By 1943, she was in New York, where she earned a following as a highly skilled solo pianist who composed for various small combinations of musicians, and occasionally for big bands. In 1944, Duke Ellington played her arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” in concert at Carnegie Hall. It later became known as “Trumpets No End.”
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