First Lady of Jazz
Mary Lou Williams, jazz pianist, composer, and arranger wrote and arranged for big bands, including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and was friend and mentor to young bebop musicians, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. She was one of the swing era’s most influential composers and pianists.
In 1945, while performing at the Cafe Society night club in New York, Williams signed on with WNEW to do a weekly radio show called “Mary Lou Williams’ Piano Workshop.” She had just released an album entitled, “The Zodiac Suite.” which was a largely improvised composition, and played versions of each of the astrological signs — one weekly on WNEW— for twelve weeks.
She later re-recorded the “Zodiak” work and performed it with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. (Williams is seen in photo below, greeting fans in the WNEW studios.)
The Café Society Club — the first racially integrated night club in the U.S. –had been opened by Barney Josephson in 1938 on Sheridan Square. He opened a second Cafe Society club two years later on 58th street between Lexington and Park. Josephson called the club “Cafe Society,” to irritate wealthy uptown club goers who had been christened as cafe society by newspaper columnist “Cholly Knickerbocker.” The club was advertised as “The Wrong Place for the Right People.” Unlike The Cotton Club and other clubs that featured black performers and white audiences, the Cafe Society crowd was integrated.
In addition to Williams, many of the best black musicians of the era were featured at the club, including Lester Young, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Josh White and James P. Johnson. In 1947, Josephson and his brother, Leon, civil rights and left-wing political activists, ran afoul of columnists Walter Winchell and Westbrook Pegler, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Within a year, the Cafe Society clubs were shuttered.
One of eleven children, Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta, in May, 1910, and grew up in Pittsburgh. Learning to play piano by ear, she started performing publicly before age seven, and by her mid-teens, she was playing with a Duke Ellington Band. Over the next few decades, Williams became widely regarded as “The First Lady of Jazz,” the single most important female composer and pianist in jazz history. In her later career, in the 1960’s and 70’s she focused on sacred music, including hymns and complete Roman Catholic masses. Mary Lou Williams died in North Carolina in1981.
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Hear Mary Lou Williams play her composition: “Roll ’em” http://popup.lala.com/popup/1657606155473388982