The First Lady of the Jazz Keyboard: Mary Lou Williams, 1972 & 1977 Fellow in Music Composition

We reached out to two Fellows whose admiration of Mary Lou Williams (1972 and 1977 Music Composition Fellow) is well-documented. Farah Jasmine Griffin, a 2021 Fellow in General Nonfiction who wrote the book Harlem Nocturne, said, “Mary Lou Williams’ gifts as composer, arranger, musician, mentor and humanitarian are so capacious we have yet to come to terms with the full depth and range of the cultural legacy she bequeathed us.” And Helen Sung, a 2021 Fellow in Music Composition, wrote, “Jazz giant, a towering master with an incredible musical legacy through her brilliant pianism and composing/arranging, her mentorship of younger bop icons (such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk), her fervent spirituality, and her humanity as a visionary social activist—I am speaking of the great Mary Lou Williams, whose artistic integrity and persevering courage paved the way so that someone like me could be a part of jazz music today. Her restless creativity and embrace of the future are beacons in my ongoing artistic journey, and I often return to such pivotal works as her Black Christ of the Andes, Zodiac Suite, and her final recording Live at the Keystone Korner. Her influence is pervasive throughout the entirety of jazz history, so it is fitting that her star continues to rise as time goes by: all hail Mary Lou!”   

In her 1973 letter to the Guggenheim Foundation reporting on her first Fellowship year, Mary Lou Williams apologized for her slight delay. She had been busy, she explained, “trying to bring back an important art called ‘jazz.’” And, she added, “It’s happening.”  

Williams dedicated the final decade of her life—the decade she received two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1972 and in 1977—to “saving jazz.” This dedication to music, though, was nothing new. Music had shaped Williams’ entire life. 

Born in Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta in 1910, Williams spent most of her early years in Pittsburgh. She was the second of eleven children. Williams was recognized as a musical prodigy early, when her mother realized she was picking out tunes on the piano at the age of two. She began more formal piano lessons at three and began to earn money performing starting at the age of six. She told journalist John Wilson that she realized early on that jazz could save her life. Racist white neighbors would antagonize the Williams family by throwing bricks at their home. When Williams offered to play piano for them, the terrorizing stopped.  

For Williams, music consistently provided survival—and escape. She was married at the age of 16, in 1926, to a jazz saxophonist. Music kept them moving: first to Memphis, then Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and Kansas City. When they divorced, she returned to Pittsburgh, married again, divorced again, and then settled in New York. Throughout, Williams proved indispensable in the flourishing jazz scene. She joined Andy Kirk’s swing band Twelve Clouds of Joy, playing keys and writing songs such as “Little Joe from Chicago” and “Roll ‘Em.” She also worked as a freelance arranger for acts like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. In 1942, she joined Duke Ellington’s band. In 1945, in New York, Williams hosted a weekly radio show and began to work closely with artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk (1976 Fellow).  

That same year, Williams composed her famous “Zodiac Suite:” a composition in twelve parts that each represented a Zodiac sign and corresponded to a musician born under that sign.  


She was endlessly creative and she knew it. She told the New Yorker, “No one can put a style on me. I’ve learned from many people. I change all the time. I experiment to keep up with what is going on, to hear what everybody else is doing. I even keep a little ahead of them, like a mirror that shows what will happen next.”

Her breakneck creativity and relentless performance schedule seemed to catch up with her in 1954. On stage in Paris, she abruptly stood up from her piano and left the stage. She didn’t play again for nearly four years.  

During her time away from music, she converted to Catholicism, finding solace in prayer and daily mass. When she was ready to come back to music—encouraged by a priest who told her that music was her way of serving God—her first composed pieces were masses inspired by her spiritual practice. The first, for example, was “Black Christ of the Andes:” a choral work inspired by the story of Saint Martin de Porres. In 1964, she told Time magazine, “I am praying through my fingers when I play. I get that good ‘soul sound,’ and I try to touch people’s spirits.”  

The year before she received her first Guggenheim Fellowship, Alvin Ailey (1968 Fellow) choreographed a dance set to Williams’ “A Mass for Peace.” He called it “Mary Lou’s Mass,” saying “If there can be a Bernstein Mass, a Mozart Mass, a Bach Mass, why can’t there be Mary Lou’s Mass?” 


Williams was 62 when she applied for her first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1972, encouraged by her friend, priest, and manager Father Peter O’Brien. She spent the period after her first Fellowship composing new works and working steadily to bring “Mary Lou’s Mass” to more audiences. She credits her Fellowship with enabling the 1975 performance of “Mary Lou’s Mass” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, an event that drew in nearly 3,000 people. It was the first time that a jazz musician had ever performed in the church. “Americans don’t realize how important jazz is,” she told the New York Post shortly after. “It’s healing for the soul. It should be played everywhere — in churches, nightclubs, everywhere. We have to use every place we can.”  

According to New Yorker writer Richard Brody, Williams was unique in her commitment to artistic evolution as she grew older, never seeming to be content with a kind of status quo. “She played better in her sixties than she ever did, reaching an artistic fulfillment in the nineteen-seventies that was due to the triple coincidence of external circumstances of the music world, those of her personal life, and those of her own creative evolution,” Brody wrote. “Williams didn’t just change, she grew; the brilliant ideas that were present in her earlier work expanded on contact with new musical realms, and she found herself doubling back on prior resistance to the strongest and most difficult new styles to incorporate both their freedom and their complexity into her playing.” 

During her second Fellowship in 1977, while she worked as an artist-in-residence at Duke University, Williams used her grant to write and record (and rewrite and rerecord) new music.  She loved being on a college campus; she taught a course on jazz history and led a jazz orchestra. And she found much inspiration in passing along the musical traditions she loved to a younger generation. “My students are great kids,” she told Books & Arts in 1979. “They’re looking for love, and that’s what’s in the music I’m teaching. Jazz has healing in it, and a lot of love.”  

Williams was diagnosed with cancer in 1979 and died two years later at the age of 71. In a New Yorker article published shortly after her death, the author wrote: “[Williams] never considered herself a feminist or a racial reformer, but by becoming a champion musician who happened to be female and black she broke down more barriers than most professional crusaders.”  


Top image: Portrait of Mary Lou Williams, between 1938 and 1948 by William Gottlieb. (William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.)

Other images:The Guggenheim Foundation archives. 

Scroll to Top