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Mary Lou Williams

Imagine a pianist playing concerts with Benny Goodman and Cecil Taylor in successive years (1977-78). That pianist was Mary Lou Williams. In a career which spanned over fifty years Mary was always on the cutting edge.

She was born Mary Scruggs in 1910 Atlanta. Her mother was a single parent who worked as a domestic and played spirituals and ragtime on piano and organ. At age three Mary shocked her by reaching up from her mother's lap to pick out a tune on the keyboard. Rather than hiring a teacher (for fear the child would lose the ability to improvise) Mary's mother invited professional musicians to their home. By watching, listening and heeding their advice, Mary learned well, especially the importance of a strong left hand. By age six, dubbed “The Little Piano Girl of East Liberty”, she was playing for money around her new home of Pittsburgh, Pa. Her early years included listening to piano rolls of James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith, records of Jelly Roll Morton and seeing Earl Hines play at youth dances. At age twelve she went on the road during school vacations with a vaudeville show. Three years later she quit high school to join the very successful vaudeville team Seymour and Jeanette. Here she met saxophonist John Williams, whom she married at sixteen. When John got the call to join Terrence Holder's band in Oklahoma, Mary took charge of his band, the Synco-Jazzers, in Memphis (Jimmie Lunceford was a member).

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