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Jazz is a spiritual music. It's the suffering that gives jazz its spiritual dimension. That's what our young jazzmen today have forgotten. Only through suffering is a true thing born.
Mary Lou Williams, on her youth
roots10a.jpg “It must have really shaken my mother. She actually dropped me and ran out to get the neighbors to listen to me,” Mary Lou Williams recalled. At no more than three or four, she had leaned over to a harmonium (a small pump organ) her mother was playing, repeating the melody she had just heard. Born Mary Alfrieda Scruggs in a shotgun house in Atlanta’s dirt-poor Edgewood neighborhood on May 8, 1910, Mary Lou Williams was a prodigy.

Her extended family, with five-year-old Mary and her sister in tow, moved to Pittsburgh, which offered opportunities to all newcomers as America entered World War I. The introspective young girl was already looking to music to assuage her loneliness and early experiences with racism. By age eight, "the little piano girl of East Liberty," as she had become known, was regularly playing for parties, wakes, silent films, and, at least on one occasion, in a brothel. She, influenced by early records of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, had already developed a pleasing repertoire of waltzes, marches, sentimental ballads, ragtime and light classics. She first tasted the life of a traveling musician at thirteen, when a visiting show,"Buzzin’ Harris and His Hits and Bits," suddenly lost its pianist. Enlisted as a successful replacement,

 

she hit the road with this latter-day version of the hardscrabble tent shows that traversed rural America in the nineteenth century when the leader of the show's band, saxophonist Johnny Williams, persuaded her mother to let her go, since school was out for the summer. A notary was called, as Williams recalled, "and papers were signed because I was underage."

Johnny Williams would soon become Mary's first husband, and his little band, the Syncopators, got a big break as accompanists to the dance team of Seymour and Jeanette James—among the few such black acts then touring on a major vaudeville circuit. When young Seymour died suddenly of a heart attack in 1926, Jeanette bravely tried to carry on, but Johnny Williams, with whose band Mary Lou had made her recording debut, now decided to join the band of T. Holder and turned leadership of his own Memphis-based band to his wife. When Holder was fired by his sidemen for financial finagling, they appointed bassist Andy Kirk as leader and renamed the band "The Dark Clouds of Joy." Kirk made Kansas City their headquarters, and Mary Lou joined her husband there—a move that ultimately led her—and the Kirk band—to national prominence.

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yellow2.gif This earliest known photograph of Mary Lou Williams, taken in Pittsburgh around 1920, when she was ten. She was already well known in the area as "the little piano girl" for her prowess at the keyboard.
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yellow2.jpg Dancers Seymour and Jeanette gave Mary Lou Burley her first wider exposure. The Synchopaters (sic), led by her husband-to-be John Williams, are seen in a photograph dating from 1926.
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yellow2.jpg Members of the John Williams Synchopaters (also known as the Midnite Strutters) included, l-r, Bradley Bullett (tb), Henry McCord (tpt), Robert Price (dms), Joe Williams (banjo), Mary Lou Williams (pno), and Williams (as, bari). Dancer Seymour James is seen in the foreground of this photograph taken around 1926.
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yellow2.gif Seymour, seen with hat and cane, and Jeanette, standing, pose with band members that include Mary Lou Burley, seated, and John Williams, second from right, c.1926.
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yellow2.gif Mary Lou Williams, around sixteen when this picture was made with banjo player Joe Williams (no relation) and husband John Williams, 1926-27. Williams credits Joe Williams with being her protector during her rough-and-tumble early days as a traveling musician.
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roots6.jpgMary Lou Williams, right, on the road in Oklahoma City with Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy. Williams, not yet the band's featured pianist, poses with Mabel Durham, wife of trombonist Allen Durham, in this 1929 photograph.
 
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dot.gif Collection at IJS

dot.gif Early Roots

dot.gif Kansas City & the Clouds of Joy

dot.gif Modern Jazz & Cafe Society

dot.gif William Gottlieb Photo Essay, 1947

dot.gif Europe & Travels in the 50's

dot.gif Chuck Stewart Photo Essay, 1957

dot.gif Religious Conversion

dot.gif Lioness in Winter

dot.gif Discography & Related Links



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