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Mary Lou Williams Biography

Mary Lou Williams Biography

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs, on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a very young child she taught herself to play the piano and her first public performance was at the age of six. She became a professional musician in her teens and became a jazz pianist, composer, and arranger.

Her professional debut with big bands came at age 12 substituting for a pianist in a vaudeville show and for the next few years she toured and played with such artists as Jelly Roll Morton, Willie “the lion” Smith, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.

A child prodigy with perfect pitch and a highly developed musical memory, she began playing by age four. By age ten she was known as “The Little Piano Girl,” playing at private parties around Pittsburgh where the family moved when she was 6 years old. “Around Pittsburgh, I played for many wealthy families, the Mellons, in particular. I was just a kid. They were wonderful! They’d send a chauffeur out for me and I’d play for their private parties. Once they gave me $100. My mother almost fainted. She wanted to know if the lady drank. She even called the people to see if they had made a mistake.”

In the early forties Williams began a long happy engagement at Café Society Downtown in New York City. She was playing on and off, more on than off for approximately five years beginning in 1943.

The years between 1941 and 1948 were an intense period of creativity in Jazz and New York was the place to be. Williams arrived on the scene just in time to capitalize on the history making events of that era. It was during this period that Williams came in contact with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Dorham, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, who was in her company daily. Many of these musicians would hold court in Williams’ apartment after hours creating and playing new sounds that would push forth the Bop Era.

Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk would bring their compositions to her to listen to and the musical sessions extended through the night and into the next day and might involve Erroll Garner or Mel Torme or Sarah Vaughan, etc.

In 1964 she founded the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and served as director for three years. Williams even published her own music through her Cecilia Publishing Company and recorded her own Mary Records label. She was also founder and served as president of the Bel Canto Foundation for needy musicians as well as the general poor and young children and she started the New Reform Foundation for gifted children between the ages of 6 and 12.

Williams died on May 28, 1981.

Mary Lou Williams was the “Mother of Bebop.” She was the mentor to Dizzy, Bird, Monk, Bud Powell and Tad Dameron, who gave them the secrets of the flatted 5th and started the bebop revolution. Monk stole a tune from her. “Rhythmning ” was a Mary Lou Williams’ riff in one of her arrangements for Andy Kirk and Thelonious Monk made a song out of it without even changing it at all. – Nelson Harrison

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