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Mary Lou Williams, 1910-1981


Not only was Mary Lou Williams a scholar of the history of jazz, she was an important participant. As she said it, while others lived through the history of jazz, she played through it (which she literally does on her LP, The History of Jazz). An accomplished pianist and composer, her work reflects her dedication to her instrument, her thorough knowledge of jazz styles, and her openly religious musical aspirations.

Though she was born in Georgia, Mary Lou Williams grew up in Pittsburgh on Hamilton Avenue in the East Liberty neighborhood, attended Lincoln elementary school in the Larimer neighborhood, and graduated from Westinghouse high school in the Homewood neighborhood. Though she left Pittsburgh as a teenager and became famous elsewhere, Williams was instrumental in starting the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in 1964. She is buried in Pittsburgh's Calvary Cemetery. Therefore we are proud to include her in our pantheon of Pittsburgh Jazz Musicians. Newspaper and magazine clippings related to Mary Lou Williams can be found in our Pittsburgh Music Information File.

Williams often returned to Pittsburgh to visit or perform. Dave Goodrich's Key to the City: Volume 1: 1928-1954 lists 14 concerts of Mary Lou Williams in the Pittsburgh area. From 1930-1942, Williams appeared with Andy Kirk at such venues as the Pythian Temple, The Gardens, Savoy Ballroom, Arch Tavern, Club Mirador, Olympia Park (McKeesport), Washington Gardens (Washington, PA), and St. Moritz. In the late 1940s, Williams performed at Mercur's Music Bar and at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Music Hall with her trio and other acts including Joe Negri and Sammy Nestico. Of special interest is Williams appearance at the Syria Mosque on August 7, 1946 as part of the "Night of Stars" with other Pittsburgh jazz legends Maxine Sullivan, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Lois Deppe, Ray Brown, and Roy Eldridge.

As a testament to her continuing inspiration and influence:

  • - In 2000, trumpeter Dave Douglas released a CD titled Soul on Soul as a tribute to her music,
  • - Pianist John Hicks released his Impressions of Mary Lou accompanied by Pittsburghers Dwayne Dolphin on bass and Cecil Brooks III on drums.
  • - The Dutch Jazz Orchestra researched and played rediscovered works of Williams on their Lady Who Swings the Band disc from 2005.
  • - In 2006, the Mary Lou Williams Collective, fronted by University of Pittsburgh graduate Geri Allen, released their Zodiac Suite: Revisited disc.
  • - A children's book based on Mary Lou Williams titled The Little Piano Girl by Ann Ingalls and Maryann MacDonald with illustrations by Giselle Potter was published in 2010.
  • - Yona Harvey, a Pittsburgh poet and Carnegie-Mellon University professor, wrote a poetry book inspired by Mary Lou Williams titled Hemming the Water that was published in 2013. Its keystone poem is titled "Communion with Mary Lou Williams."
  • - Also in 2013, the American Musicological Society published Mary Lou Williams' Selected Works for Big Band, a compilation of 11 of her big band scores. The book also includes stylistic analysis, critical commentary and a subchapter titled "From Pittsburgh to Kansas City."
  • - The University of Pittsburgh hosted a cyber symposium devoted to Mary Lou Williams in March 2014. Headed by Geri Allen, the symposium also included pianists Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran and panelist Father Peter O'Brien from the Mary Lou Williams Foundation.
  • - Filmmaker Carol Bash's documentary Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band was premiered on public television stations in April 2015.

Explore more Mary Lou Williams materials and resources below.



Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou WilliamsDahl, Linda
Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams
(r)ML417.W515 D34 1999
Soul on SoulKernodle, Tammy L.
Soul on Soul: the Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams
(r)ML410.W7134 K46 2004

Pittsburgh Music Reference Collection

The Music department has gathered thousands of recordings by musicians with Pittsburgh connections. These are kept as reference (i.e., they cannot be checked out of the library though a few duplicate copies may circulate) so they will always be on hand for researchers and curious listeners. There are listening stations in the department that can play LPs, cassettes and CDs. For Mary Lou Williams, there are both LPs and CDs in the reference collection for you to explore.


LP Records

The History of Jazz
In 1970, Mary Lou Williams tape recorded herself in her apartment narrating and playing the history of jazz. This LP still has not been officially released on compact disc.
r RECORD AL 13962
Mary Lou Williams: A Keyboard History*
In 1955, Williams' piano trio recorded this history of her own career from her early ragtime, blue and boogie-woogie styles to modern jazz. This recording also has never been officially released on CD.
r RECORD AL 16254
The Best of Mary Lou Williams (r) RECORD AL 13370
Mary Lou Williams & Cecil Taylor Embraced r RECORD AL 13950
Mary Lou Williams in London r RECORD AL 14321
Mary Lou Williams Quartet featuring Don Byas (r) RECORD AL 13908
Mary Lou Williams: the Asch Recordings 1944-47 r RECORD AL 13978
Free Spirits r RECORD AL 14020
My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me r RECORD AL 14129
Solo Recital (r) RECORD AL 12953

Compact Discs

Most of the CDs in the Pittsburgh Music Reference Collection are also available as circulating copies. Reference items have an "r" in the call number while circulating items do not; titles with both reference and circulating copies are signified by "(r)" in the call number.

The Asch Recordings, 1944-47 (r) Jz Wil 38914
At Rick's Cafe Americain (r) Jz Wil 38913
Circle Recordings r Jz Wil 29672
Free Spirits (Mary Lou Williams Trio) (r) Jz Mar 29664
A Grand Night for SwingingJz Wil 38366
Ladies of Jazz: Mary Lou Williams & Barbara Carroll(r) Jz Wil 29671
Live at the Cookery (r) Jz Wil 41214
Live at the Keystone Korner (r) Jz Wil 21111
Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz with Guest Mary Lou Williams: Conversation and Music as Heard on National Public Radio (r) Jz McP 40590
Mary Lou Williams, 1953-1954 (r) Jz Wil 29676
Mary Lou Williams Presents Black Christ of the Andes(r) Jz Wil 22470
Mary Lou's Mass (r) Jz Wil 24181
My Mama Pinned a Rose on Me (r) Jz Wil 29673
Nite Life (r) Jz Wil 42950
Solo Recital: Montreux Jazz Festival 1978 (r) Jz Wil 38447
Zodiac Suite (r) Jz Wil 9521
Zodiac Suite r CD 4487
Zoning (r) Jz Wil 10160

Additional Catalog Searches

For more Mary Lou Williams recordings, including albums where she collaborated or performed with other bandleaders, you can perform an author search limited to Music CD and LP/Cassette.

And be sure to explore the Catalog to find scores or videos and DVDs related to Mary Lou Williams.


Listen Online

The library subscribes to a streaming audio database, Naxos Music Library Jazz, that contains a few albums of Mary Lou Williams music: her concert with avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, the solo recital from the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival, and the Dutch Jazz Orchestra's album of rediscovered works.

In addition, the Smithsonian Global Sound database contains almost 100 tracks from Mary Lou Williams that are easily found through an alphabetical artist search.

All of the library's streaming audio databases are free and can be accessed off-site with a Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh library card.

Further Research

The library subscribes to numerous periodicals related to jazz including Down Beat, Jazziz, and Jazztimes Magazine. These journals and hundreds of others are indexed in the Music Index database. (Articles about Mary Lou Williams are also available in JSTOR, a scholarly full-text database only available in the CLP Main library building.)

Finally, the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University maintains the largest archive of materials related to Mary Lou Williams.

As always, if you have any questions, please ask a librarian.

Updated June 2015.