Throughout the history of jazz, men like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie carved out the basic musical fabrics that ranged from the boogie blues to fusion.
Yet there's one woman who is admiringly — and indisputably — the single thread that stitches together the many pieces spanning almost six decades. Mary Lou Williams, a virtuoso pianist, composer and arranger, was truly, as the Kennedy Center dubbed her, "the first lady of jazz.''
Williams, a musical prodigy who began playing professionally as a teen in the 1920s, was always ahead of her time. While most women who garnered fame in jazz tended to be singers, Williams composed and arranged music for Ellington, Benny Goodman and Andy Kirk. She mentored a generation of jazz giants, including Monk and Gillespie.
By the time of her death in 1981 at 71, Williams had more than 300 compositions and recordings in her repertoire, which crossed a broad array of musical styles.
The year 2010 marks the centennial of her birth, which is being celebrated with concerts and seminars to acquaint music lovers with her lesser-known legacy. She thrived without onstage theatrics — choosing to let her music speak for itself, says Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle, associate professor of musicology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
"You can't box her in and categorize her or her work," says Dr. Kernodle, who also wrote the biography Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams. "Mary Lou is a personification of genius that denigrates gender and social barriers."
Williams, for her part, was clear about her role in jazz. As she once put it, she used her music to "heal disturbed souls."
"I am praying through my fingers when I play," Williams said in a 1964 interview with Time. "I get that good 'soul sound,' and I try to touch people's spirits."
She was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta in 1910 but spent most of her childhood in the East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She grew up working class, one of 11 children of a mother and stepfather. Her mother played an old pump organ for the local church.
As a child, Mary Lou always sat in her mother's lap while she practiced. One day, Mary Lou closely watched her mother's fingers roll across the keys; minutes later, she was able to recount the exact melody. He mother, Virginia, shocked by her daughter's action, dropped Mary Lou and ran to tell the neighbors.
Virginia didn't want to tarnish her daughter's talent through formal training, so she let her daughter teach herself the instrument. Her stepfather, Fletcher Burley, encouraged her by purchasing a piano for their home. By age 6, Mary Lou was playing at private parties and eventually for public events. Around town, she became known as "the little piano girl of East Liberty."
At 12 she was touring with the vaudeville show Hits and Bits and then with the Orpheum Circuit with dancers Seymour James and Jeanette Taylor. Three years later, as a young teenager, she played with Ellington and his early small band, known as the Washingtonians. She eventually became an arranger for him and wrote the song "Trumpet No End" (1946).
During the Swing Era of the 1940s, she wrote for Benny Goodman, penning ''Roll 'Em" and "Camel Hop," the theme music for his radio show, as well as Jimmie Lunceford's "What's Your Story, Morning Glory?" She also wrote and arranged tunes for jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Earl Hines and Tommy Dorsey.
"The depth of her knowledge and creative ingenuity, and the amount of work she has, is just mind-blowing,” said Cecilia Smith, artistic director of the New York-based Mary Lou Williams Resurgence Project, which has been introducing her work to national and international audiences for almost six years.
Williams was known for spending hours at the piano, studying techniques and compositions. Once in the recording studio, she continued with that attitude of experimentation, playing around with various harmonies and melodies in her own recordings, which can be heard in her 12-movement Zodiac Suite (1945), performed by the New York Philharmonic. Each number was a character sketch and musical portrait of her jazz friends, representing each astrological sign. The piece debuted on her weekly radio show on WNEW in the late 1940s.
She had a long-standing gig at Café Society and played with various trios. Her spacious New York apartment became a haven for artists like Monk, Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn and Bud Powell to bounce around ideas.
In 1952 she headed to Europe alone for a nine-day stint. She ended up staying there for two years, first living in England for a year before heading to Paris in 1953. There, she lived in the Crystal Hotel on the Rue Saint-Benoit, which also played host to other famous folks, from Eartha Kitt to James Baldwin to Chester Himes.
Upon her return, she abruptly left the jazz world — considering the music that had shaped her life and work as the devil's own. She was also disturbed by how the industry robbed black artists, and it hurt to see her friends succumb to substance abuse. For six years she delved deeply into the spiritual life, converting to Catholicism. She returned to jazz only after Gillespie and her priest, the Rev. Anthony Woods, convinced her that her music was God's greatest gift to her. She returned to the jazz stage with Gillespie at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.
"The conversion was a true conversion," says the Rev. Peter O'Brien, her former manager and executive director of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation. "The important thing that comes out of that conversion was not only her own life but her sacred writings."
Indeed, her music and work became a testimony of her devoted faith. She set up a foundation to help jazz musicians struggling with addiction and opened a thrift shop, the proceeds of which benefited the foundation. Yet her generosity extended beyond the foundation.
Drummer Mickey Roker remembers that during a Christmas in 1964, Williams helped him purchase gifts for his two children. "It was very generous of her," says Roker, who played with Williams for eight months that year. "Most band leaders, they just take for themselves, but it was a beautiful thing that she did for me."
In the '60s, she began writing sacred musical scores to critical acclaim, including "St. Martin de Porres: Black Christ of the Andes" (1964) and "Music for Peace" (1969). The latter work was commissioned by the Vatican and premiered in 1970 at Columbia University. Later, Williams rewrote it for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and it became known as "Mary Lou's Mass."
In her later years, she focused on introducing jazz to the younger generation through lectures and workshops. In 1977 she began teaching at Duke University as an artist-in-residence; she held that position until her death. In her classes, she urged her students to experience the music.
"Pianists can have technique, but that's not enough," she said during a workshop. "We're living in a technical society, and people think that if they go to school and learn it, they'll be able to play it right. Sure, you can play like a typewriter, but it'll make your audience nervous to listen to it."
Monee Fields-White is a regular contributor to The Root.