Wednesday, 28 May marks the 33rd anniversary of the death of Mary Lou William. Williams was an African-American keyboardist, composer, arranger, and contemporary of both Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, is often overlooked as a key contributor to the jazz movement of the 20th century.
Born in Atlanta, Williams had her first taste of arranged music while attending church in her hometown. Moving to Pittsburgh in 1915 only spiked her interest in music, specifically jazz, as the city was a stop on the Theater Owners Booking association route, a vaudeville circuit for African-American performers.
Williams was first able to truly experiment with her musical talents as the pianist and arranger for the band Andy Kirk’s 12 Cloud’s of Joy. She came to this opportunity through her husband, who was the saxophonist for the band. Williams continued to arrange for the group creating household hits like “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” and “Roll ‘em” until her departure from the band in 1942.
Williams’s arrangements were not limited to Andy Kirk’s band. Her compositions were featured by jazz greats including, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and Jimmie Lunceford. The New York Philharmonic performed Williams’s Zodiac Suite at Carnegie Hall in 1946. The Suite was composed of twelve arrangements, each labeled for a sign of the zodiac and all inspired by different jazz musicians.
Facing gender barriers in the states that hindered wide-spread success, Williams traveled to Europe in the 1950s. After performing in both London and Paris, Williams’s returned to the Unites States and simultaneously entertained a brief intermission in her musical career to concentrate her efforts on more religious pursuits.
Returning to music in the late 1950s, Williams reentered the scene with more of a devout lens. Throughout the late 1950s and 60s, Williams composed a number of religious arrangements and musical masses including “Hymn in Honor of St. Martin De Porres,” “Mass for Lenten Season,” and most notably “Mass for Peace and Justice” which was later renamed “Mary Lou’s Mass.” This last mass was the musical backdrop to Alvin Ailey’s series of dances presented under the same name and was also performed at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1975 as the first jazz music performed in this iconic cathedral.
Williams returned to secular composing in the last decade of her life and also worked as an artist-in-residence at Duke University up until her death in 1981.