Historical Markers
Mary Lou Williams Historical Marker
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Mary Lou Williams

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
328 Lincoln Avenue, Lincoln Elementary School, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
November 30, 1996

Behind the Marker

During much of the twentieth century, Mary Lou Williams was arguably the most accomplished female instrumentalist and composer in jazz. Perhaps more than any other single artist, her music spans the entire stylistic history of jazz and black music in the twentieth century.
Mary Lou Williams seated at a piano and smiling into the camera. Visible behind are bar patrons.
Mary Lou Williams

Born in 1910 to an unmarried mother, she moved with her family from Georgia to Pittsburgh when she was about four. There she began performing as a child, often sitting on someone's lap to reach the keyboard. Williams' stepfather was a professional gambler, and some of her first paid performances took place in gambling dens, as marker she recalled in an interview for Melody Maker in 1954:

He sometimes took me with him at nights - to bring him luck, he said. We had moved again, to Hamilton Boulevard in East Liberty [a suburb of Pittsburgh about six miles from the main drag], and I went with him into a variety of smoke-filled gaming rooms, most of which had an upright against one wall. The game was generally 'skin' - the Georgia skin game - and the players would all be men, for women weren't allowed in these places. I was kind of smuggled in, and before the cards began I used to play a few things on the piano. Often I received as much as 20 dollars in tips, which my stepfather had started rolling by dropping a dollar in his hat. This 'pound' had to be returned to him as soon as we got outside. Still, it was a fair deal.

Still in her early teens, Williams continued her musical career touring with vaudeville reviews. By 1927, she had formed her own group featuring future Swing legend Jimmie Lunceford as a sideman. Throughout the 1930s, Williams was a pianist and arranger for Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy. The Kirk band was one of the creators of the Kansas City Swing style of music and Williams wrote many of the band's signature tunes, including "Walking and Swinging," "Froggy Bottom," and "Cloudy." Williams also wrote and arranged for many of the other Big Bands of the Swing era, including Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby, the markerDorsey Brothers and Louis Armstrong.

In 1941 Williams moved to New York, where she became a key figure in the modern jazz revolution called "Bebop." There, her New York apartment became a Bebop salon for Art Blakey, Kenny Dorham, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and other young musicians on the scene.

Williams later moved to Europe and converted to Catholicism. For a time she stopped recording. When she returned to music, she moved towards extended composition and sacred music. Among her sacred works are a cantata, "Black Christ of the Andes" (1963), and three masses, the last of which, "Mary Lou's Mass" (1970), was commissioned by the Vatican, and became well known after Alvin Ailey choreographed the piece.

Until the end of her life in 1981, Mary Lou Williams never stopped developing her own highly personal musical style or working with new styles. In 1977, she recorded an album of duets with the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor. In the words of Duke Ellington, "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary. Her writing and performing are and always have been just a little ahead... throughout her career... her music retains - and maintains - a standard quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul."
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