Mary Elfrieda Scruggs was born May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia. When she was a toddler the family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and this is where Mary grew up. She was the second of 11 children, but unlike her siblings, Mary was gifted in music. She had perfect pitch and a superb musical memory and was picking out tunes on the piano by the age of two.
Her mother, a classically trained pianist, recognized the talent and began teaching Mary how to play when she was just three years old. By the age of 10, Mary was known as the “Little Piano Girl” and was performing for audiences all over Pittsburgh.
She was only 17 when she met saxophonist John Williams. They married, and he and his new wife moved to Oklahoma to join the popular band Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy. This was when Mary Lou began to be recognized as an outstanding piano player and musical arranger. By the late 1930s, Mary Lou Williams was arranging for renowned musicians such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Louis Armstrong.
In 1942, Mary moved to New York City. Duke Ellington recorded her arrangement of “Trumpet No End,” and her reputation spread all over the country. She began meeting with younger musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. They would meet in her apartment and discuss and write music together. She made the transition to bebop and wrote songs such as “Waltz Boogie,” “Knowledge,” and “Lonely Moments.” But her life was soon to take a dramatic turn.
Mary Lou had always possessed a deep need to develop her spirituality, and she knew something was missing from her life. In 1955, she began her journey in Harlem at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. She even tried preaching in the streets. Ironically, it was Dizzy Gillespie who became the link that connected her to Catholicism.
Dizzy introduced Mary Lou to Father John Crowley, a priest he had met in South America. Father Crowley also happened to be a jazz lover. The priest persuaded her to “offer her playing up (to God).” Mary Lou embraced Father Crowley’s advice and began doing just that.
Mary then went over to Our Lady of Lourdes parish on 142nd Street in Harlem. She knocked on the door, and Father Anthony Woods answered. He invited her in, they became friends, and he soon became Mary Lou’s mentor. She began receiving instruction in the Catholic faith and was baptized on May 7, 1957. She received her Confirmation one month later.
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Mary had lately refrained from performing because she realized that jazz did not fill her spiritual needs. However, once a Catholic she was buoyed by her new faith. Finding the comfort she had sought, she resumed her musical career, appearing with Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1957.
She founded her own label, Mary Records, which was the first recording company started by a woman. She also started Cecilia Music Publishing Company. Influenced by post-Vatican II reforms and by the civil rights movement, Mary now wanted to write sacred pieces. Looking for some guidance, she asked Father Woods to help.
He assisted her with the lyrics for her first sacred work. The result was a piece called Black Christ of the Andes (1962). This honored St. Martin de Porres, the lay Dominican from Lima, Peru, who was a patron saint of black and mixed-race people.
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Mary Lou was the guiding spirit behind a February 1967 concert at Carnegie Hall, entitled Praise the Lord in Many Voices.She wrote Mass for the Lenten Season (1968), and Music for Peace (1970) which came to be known as Mary Lou’s Mass.
In 1975, Mary Lou’s Mass became the first jazz arrangement to be performed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. She became an artist-in-residence at Duke University and taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She also received an honorary degree from Fordham University.
Mary Lou Williams died on May 28, 1981, from bladder cancer. She was 71. She is known as the “First Lady of the jazz keyboard,” but it was her Catholic faith that ultimately defined her musical legacy.
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