Born as Mary Elfride Scrubbs on May 8th, 1910, the world knows her as Mary Lou Williams, an American pianist, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements, and recorded over 100 albums. She was a composer and an arranger for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. A steward of this new art form that she helped create, Mary Lou was a colleague, teacher, mentor, and friend to those at the forefront of jazz. Mary Lou Williams learned piano from her mother as a young child. By the age of three, a prodigy, she was picking out simple songs on the piano, and by the age of six, she was helping to support her large family by playing piano at parties. By seven years old she began performing publicly around Pittsburgh under the moniker, “The Little Piano Girl.” When she was thirteen years old, she worked with a young Duke Ellington, and by fifteen Mary Lou became a member of Ellington’s small group, “The Washingtonians.” To say that she was an influential figure in the birth and development of jazz is an understatement. She was writing and arranging for some of the biggest bands of the time at the height of their success, and she stayed at the forefront of innovation, nurturing young players in pursuit of new ways of expression.
Mary Lou Williams was a lifelong creator, supporter, teacher, and influential figure in jazz until she died in 1981. Her students and mentees included Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Budd Powell, Charlie Parker, and Tadd Dameron just to name a few. She was in many ways the founding mother to the founding fathers of jazz.
Jazz wouldn't be jazz without Mary Lou Williams' creative voice and active participation in nurturing the art form, and talented creative voices from its roots. So today I invite everyone to give thanks for Mary Lou Williams. Happy Mother's Day to the Mother of the music that we love so much.
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Listen to "The History of Jazz" by Mary Lou Williams from Smithsonian Folk Ways Recordings The New York Times wrote a wonderful article about the female pioneers of jazz. Read more here. Ten Women Who Never Got Their Due.
More from The New York Times about Mary Lou Williams 5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Mary Lou Williams. From the National Women's History Museum, Mary Lou Williams
When asked who her greatest influence was as a teenager she cited another woman, Lovie Austin.