Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King – Mary Lou Williams – American Jazz Pianist, Arranger and Composer

Welcome to the Music Column with jazz musician, composer and singer William Price King.

Mary Lou Williams – American Jazz Pianist, Arranger and Composer

Mary Lou Williams (born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs; May 8, 1910 – May 28, 1981) was an American jazz pianist, arranger, and composer. She wrote hundreds of compositions and arrangements and recorded more than one hundred records. She wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and she was friend, mentor, and teacher to Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie

In 1922 at only 12 years old, she joined the Orpheum Circuit, a chain of vaudeville and movie theatres founded in 1886. In the next year she would play with some of the established musicians of that era including Duke Ellington and his first band The Washingtonians. She soon came to the attention of Louis Armstrong and other influential musicians.

She was married at 16 to saxophonist John Overton Williams who was playing the circuit with his group The Syncopators. They moved to Memphis where he assembled another band which included Mary Lou on the piano. However when her husband was offered the chance to play with Andy Kirk’s band in Oklahoma City they both moved and Mary Lou played with a number of bands before joining The Twelve Clouds of Joy alongside her husband, playing, arranging and composing. She provided Andy Kirk with some of his hits including “ Walkin’ and Swingin’”.

Mary Lou was the arranger and pianist for recordings in Kansas City, Chicago and New York, and also recorded her own piano solos for Brunswick Records, which were very popular and raised her national prominence. Apart from playing second pianist with Andy Kirk, she also freelanced as an arranger for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.

Following her divorce in 1942, Mary Lou returned to Pittsburgh where she formed a six-piece ensemble including former bandmate Harold Baker who would become her second husband. After he left to join Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Mary Lou followed and arranged a number of hits for the orchestra.

When  her marriage to Harold Baker broke down, she headed to New York where she accepted a residence at the Café Society Downtown, presented her own weekly radio show and began mentoring up and coming bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie.
After the war, Mary Lou went to England and stayed in Europe for two years and then took a break from performing for a number of years, only returning in 1957 to play with Dizzy Gillespie at the Newport Jazz Festival.

Whilst playing jazz in New York her attention turned to composing sacred jazz music, working with youth choirs to perform her work. During the 1970s she released several albums, played nightly in Greenwich Village at The Cookery and in 1975 performed her acclaimed jazz spiritual “Mary Lou’s Mass” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

She was artist in residence at Duke University from 1977-1981, performed at the White House in 1978 and the same year participated in Benny Goodman’s 40th anniversary at Carnegie Hall.

Awards and honors
• Guggenheim Fellowships, 1972  and 1977.
• Nominee 1971 Grammy Awards, Best Jazz Performance – Group, for the album Giants, Dizzy Gillespie, Bobby Hackett, Mary Lou Williams
• Honorary degree from Fordham University in New York in 1973
• In 1980 Williams founded the Mary Lou Williams Foundation
• Honorary degree from Rockhurst College in Kansas City in 1980.
• Received the 1981 Duke University’s Trinity Award for service to the university, an award voted on by Duke University students.
In 1981, Mary Lou Williams died of bladder cancer in North Carolina. She was known as “The first lady of the jazz keyboard”, and was one of the first women to be successful in Jazz.

Now time to hear some of the amazing work from this pioneering female jazz musician.


“Nightlife” was recorded in 1930 when Williams was at the peak of her prowess. Her style was similar to that of Thomas Fats Waller. “Night Life” begins with a four-bar introduction, the theme being a 32-bar AABA song, played with rigorous cross rhythms, hesitations, tremolos and a stomp. The piece springs forward with a rush and Williams never falters, offering contrasts and surprises. Her choruses change direction, melodically and rhythmically, especially the last one with a descending eight-to-the-bar bass walk, reminiscent of Eubie Blake’s “Charleston Rag”, a tour de force.

“Zodiac Suite” was composed by Mary Lou Williams in 1944-45 for her trio and later for orchestra and was performed on Williams’ weekly radio program in 1944. The idea of using signs from the zodiac was inspired by musicians born under different signs, and the idea to do a suite was partly inspired by « Black, Brown, and Beige » a suite by Duke Ellington in 1943. Each of the compositions was dedicated by Williams to personalities such as Ben Webster, Leonard Feather, and then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This well written and coherent suite is considered by many to be her most important work and illustrates how large her musical palette was. She fuses her strong roots in the blues and boogie with modern harmonies reminiscent of Debussy. “Zodiac Suite” is full of surprises and is one of the first encounters of jazz and classical music melding together, announcing the ‘Third Stream.’* In 2001, this album was included in the “Songs of the Century of the Recording Industry Association of America” at the 328th place.

*Third Stream – A new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music. Improvisation is generally seen as a vital component of third stream.

This is Scorpio from the Zodiac Suite and you can listen to the entire album: Zodiac Suite Album YouTube

“Black Christ of the Andes”, released in 1965, is an a cappella choral piece which celebrates the life of the Peruvian patron saint of interracial justice. Jazz loving priests encouraged Williams to convey her religious feelings through her compositions and the result was the hymn “St. Martin de Porres”. Here, her complex harmonies and brilliant phrasing, stemming from spirituals and the blues, border on the avant-garde. The concept behind “Black Christ of the Andes” is the fusion of jazz and the spiritual, making a powerful secular statement and at the same time a call to the divine.


“Roll ‘em” – Benny Goodman asked Mary Lou Williams to write a blues song for his band in 1937. The result was a boogie-woogie piece based on the blues which she titled “Roll ‘em”. Goodman wanted to put Williams under contract to write for him exclusively, but she refused, preferring to freelance instead. This video is a live recording of “Roll ‘em” on American TV with Benny Goodman on clarinet, Mary Lou Williams on piano, Cal Collins on guitar, Connie Kay on drums and Major Holley on bass. In January 2019, the Austin Swing Syndicate held its fourth semi-annual Battle of the Bands (via recorded music) with such greats as Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, and Sy Oliver. The Benny Goodman Orchestra came out on top with the Mary Lou Williams song “Roll ‘em” which won the first prize.

Read the full story of this extraordinary musician :

Buy the music of Mary Lou Williams on Amazon:

My thanks to William Price King for bringing us the music of Mary Lou Williams thank you too from us both for tuning in.

William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.

His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.

While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.

His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.

In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.

William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION

Buy William’s music ITunes

Connect with William

Regular Venue 

You can find all of the Music Column series in this directory: