Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band

May has come and gone with, as usual, no recognition of either the birth or the death of Mary Lou Williams, a pianist who (with possible exception of Lil Hardin Armstrong) was the first woman to make a name for herself as a jazz instrumentalist.

Mary Lou Williams


Born May 8, 1910 in Atlanta as Mary Elfrieda Winn, she grew up in Pittsburgh.  A musical prodigy, she taught herself to play piano by the age of three, and at six was already contributing to the support of a family that included ten siblings by playing at parties.  She was performing publicly by the age of seven as “The Little Piano Girl” and became a full-time professional musician at the age of twelve, traveling the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.

McKinney’s Cotton Pickers.


She had some instruction on the piano, beginning her studies with classical music, then took up jazz under the influence of Earl Hines, a Pittsburgh pianist who made some of the most important early recordings in the genre with Louis Armstrong.  She must have learned the fundamentals well; at the age of fifteen she was playing at the Rhythm Club in Harlem with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers when Armstrong walked in.  He was sufficiently charmed by the talent of the still girlish teen that he picked her up and kissed her.

Earl Hines


Williams made her professional debut in 1925 as part of the touring band of Seymour & Jeannette, a black vaudeville act, and ended up marrying John Overton Williams, the group’s alto sax player.  They moved to Memphis where she recorded with a group known as the Synco Jazzers, then John Williams joined Andy Kirk’s orchestra, which had recently relocated to Kansas City, Kansas.  Kirk took over a band from Dallas known by the ironically oxymoronic name “Dark (to signal that they played jazz) Clouds of Joy,” changed its name to “Twelve Clouds of Joy,” and hired his newly-acquired alto player’s wife as arranger.

Williams with Andy Kirk, center, as a member of Kirk’s Clouds of Joy.


It was with Kirk’s group that Williams achieved jazz notoriety; she filled in for an absent pianist on the band’s first recording date, then eventually took over his spot.  Her arrangements gave the group its distinctive rhythm, a swinging style that came to be associated with Kansas City bands generally.  Broadcast by live radio wire from night clubs, the Kansas City sound eventually lured New York talent scouts such as John Hammond, who heard Count Basie’s band on his car radio one night and was instrumental in bringing their comparable music to national attention.  Like Basie’s band, Kirk and his Clouds of Joy made the move to the East coast, where Williams became the band’s top soloist.  In the words of the song that was written to showcase her play, she was “The Lady Who Swings the Band.”

Williams was a composer as well, writing “Roll ‘Em,” a hit for Benny Goodman, and “What’s Your Story Morning Glory?”  She also wrote free-lance arrangements for bands other than Kirk’s, including those of Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, so her influence extended beyond the groups she played with.  She left Kirk in 1942 and, in what may have been a related development, divorced Williams and married trumpeter Harold “Shorty” Baker.

Harold “Shorty” Baker


While Williams would be associated with a sound that she helped created in Kansas City, her roots were in Harlem stride piano and the percussive style of Earl Hines who played forceful octaves with his right hand so that he could be heard over the horns.  She continued to evolve over the course of her career, however, listening to and championing bop pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.  She even wrote a bop “fairy tale,” In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee, recorded by Dizzy Gillespie, and in 1948 she played with a Benny Goodman group that was the swing clarinetist’s attempt to catch up with bebop.

In 1952 she left America and spent three years abroad, first in England, then in Paris.  The hiatus may have given her perspective, or perhaps at the age of 45 she had begun to tire of the jazz life, but whatever the cause when she returned to the states in 1955 she turned to the Catholic religion and began to write sacred works, including three masses.  She withdrew from the music business for several years before returning to play occasional night club and concert dates from 1958 to 1960.  She re-surfaced in 1978 for a 40th anniversary performance commemorating Benny Goodman’s ground-breaking integrated Carnegie Hall concert in 1938.  Her self-imposed exile, then slow disappearance from the music scene, may explain why she is not more widely-known today.

Late in life her concerts were structured as lessons in the history of jazz, which was fitting given that she ended up in an academic setting, teaching at Duke University.  She died in Durham, North Carolina on May 28, 1981.

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