Artist picture of Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams

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Mary Lou Williams' musical career began in the mid-1920s, when she was still a teenager performing in cabaret. Recognized in Kansas City and married to John Williams, himself a saxophonist, she obtained a position as pianist with him in The Twelve Clouds Of Joy, a band formed by Terence Holder in the late '20s and later taken over by Andy Kirk. Alongside this orchestra, in which Mary Lou Williams spent over ten years, the pianist wrote numerous compositions and arrangements for a number of very popular bands, including those of Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Earl Hines. After leaving Andy Kirk and marrying trumpeter Harold "Shorty" Baker, Mary Lou Williams joined Duke Ellington's big band in the early '40s, although she performed more frequently at the head of her own groups. In the late '40s, she was also one of the few women involved in the emerging bebop movement. The '50s saw her visit Europe several times and take a deeply religious artistic direction. Indeed, after retiring from the stage for a while to be closer to the church, the pianist did not re-emerge in the company of Dizzy Gillespie until 1957. She went on to compose several masses and numerous themes that allude to the gospel tradition. But Mary Lou Williams' strength also lay in her ability to keep pace with the evolution of jazz, a fact she confirmed in the late 70s by performing in duo with Cecil Taylor, one of the leading pianists of free jazz. Aside from singers, Mary Lou Williams was one of the first women to establish herself in the jazz world for over forty years, not only as a pianist, but also as a composer and arranger for some of the most prestigious bandleaders, from the mid-30s until her death.