Mary Lou Williams - Black Jazz Stories

Mary Lou Williams - Black Jazz Stories
Written by Katy Myers

Mary Lou Williams was one of the best jazz pianists around, and a friend and mentor to many, including jazz icons Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. She was also an outstanding arranger and composer, something few women got credit for. Arranging a self-reported six to twelve songs per week for the likes of Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Gus Arnheim, Glen Gray, Tommy Dorsey and many more, Williams literally shaped the sound of the big band era. (1) 

At a young age, Mary Lou learned that playing the piano could win people over. As a black family in a white neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Williams’ family was harassed and had bricks thrown through their windows. Little Mary Lou, at six years old after receiving lessons from her mother, began visiting her white neighbors’ homes and playing the piano for them. The harassment stopped, and William’s mother only discovered why when Mary Lou broke her arm and neighbors came by to ask why the concerts had stopped. By age fifteen, Williams was a full-time professional musician. (2)

Mary Lou began creating arrangements at age 19, taking songs that others had composed and writing parts for each of an ensemble’s instruments, yielding repeatable, signature performances of jazz standards. Throughout her twenties, while the country was in the midst of the depression and paid performances were scarce, Williams spent her time arranging and composing. In Linda Dahl’s biography, Morning Glory, Williams explains, "I always liked lying flat on my back on the grass in Paseo Park in Kansas City, looking up at the stars, composing, late at night." (1)

Williams learned music theory from Andy Kirk and jammed with Lester Young and Ben Webster, among many others. One of her most revered skills was the ability to express jazz sounds in her writing. Mary Lou was able to dictate the bending of notes, or playing in between the tones of a key, as well as complicated rhythm patterns, both keys to notating jazz music. In former Metronome editor Barry Ulanov’s words, “She had discovered, because of her particular genius, a way to articulate on paper a jazz pattern—how to accent a measure. And that's why her best stuff is among the best in jazz.” (1) 

Because big bands were playing the same hot jazz standards across the country, being able to add a thrilling twist or a surprising melody was a skill that made Williams very sought after. It was the golden era for arrangers, and Mary Lou Williams was the queen. 

As Williams toured the US and Europe sharing her music, she often spoke about the history of jazz and its importance in the Black American story. Envisioning jazz as a tree with roots in the suffering of Black Americans, Williams commissioned artist David Stone Martin to draw “The History of Jazz.” The illustration shows the music’s strong roots in the life experiences of Black Americans and a thick, straight trunk of spirituals, ragtime, swing, and bop. Blues runs through from the roots to the leaves. (3)

Williams would share “The History of Jazz” with her audiences, and often supplied printed handouts at her performances. The following is an excerpt from one such handout by Mary Lou Williams, on the origins of jazz and the creative process of improvisation: 

“From suffering came the Negro spirituals, songs of joy, and songs of sorrow. The main origin of American Jazz is the spiritual. Because of the deeply religious background of the American Negro, he was able to mix this strong influence with rhythms that reached deep enough into the inner self to give expression to outcries of sincere joy, which became known as Jazz.

“The creative process of improvisation cannot be easily explained. The moment a soloist’s hands touch the instrument, ideas start to flow from the mind, through the heart, and out the fingertips. Or, at least, that is the way it should be. Therefore, if the mind stops, there are no ideas, just mechanical patterns. If the heart doesn’t fulfill its role, there will be very little feeling, or none... at all.” (3)

Williams toured the country over and over again, spreading her compositions both musical and philosophical. She was always in demand, perhaps due in part to her ability to know when the tides of music were changing and roll with them. For example, rather than getting stuck in swing when the world was moving on to bop, Mary Lou adapted and grew. In the words of Duke Ellington, "Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary.” (1)

Because of this ability to change with the times, Mary Lou Williams had an acclaimed career as a performer, arranger, and composer for most of her life. Unfortunately, that renown did not lead to financial security. Mary Lou faced exploitation from her white manager and agents, in addition to the discrimination she faced as a Black woman. What extra money Williams did have, she often used to help musicians struggling with addiction. (2)

After many years of constant work, Mary Lou hit a breaking point in 1954 and in the middle of a concert in Paris she stood up and left the stage, not to perform again for three years. Williams then converted to Catholicism and spent much of her three-year sabbatical attending mass, praying, and ruminating on the relationship between jazz and God. In 1957, Williams came back on the jazz scene with a new mission: to bring jazz to church. She wrote new pieces that combined her love of jazz with her love of God, including, “Black Christ of the Andes,” “Mary Lou’s Mass” and her 1974 album, “Zoning.” (2)

In the words of Mary Lou Williams in the New York Post in 1975, “Americans don't realize how important jazz is. It's healing for the soul. It should be played everywhere—in churches, nightclubs, everywhere. We have to use every place we can.”

Further Reading:

  1. How Mary Lou Williams Shaped the Sound of the Big Band Era, NPR
  2. Mary Lou Williams, Missionary of Jazz, NPR
  3. Mary Lou Williams, Jazz for the Soul, Father Peter O'Brien, S. J.
  4. 'Drag 'Em': How Movement Shaped The Music Of Mary Lou Williams, NPR

Watch Mary Lou Williams perform and speak on the origins of jazz.