The Mary Lou Williams Foundation is organized to extend the life story and the musical legacy of Mary Lou Williams, and to advance the public knowledge of the Art Form of Jazz by teaching and exposing the same, in all its forms, to the public, particularly young people, individually or in groups, enabling them to perform before audiences, or giving them the opportunity to hear Jazz in concert, on recordings, and in studio performances.

Mary Lou Williams

1910 - 1981

The First Lady of Jazz


Mary Lou Williams was not only the First Lady of jazz; she has a place at the very top echelon of the jazz pantheon. Ms. Williams wrote over 350 compositions throughout her rich and highly eclectic musical career. She also helped spawn an entire generation of young musicians during the 1940s that would precipitate the birth of one of the world’s most influential musical styles, known as bebop. Her students included musicians as influential and varied as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and countless others.

Among her few peers in the more than 50 years that she was active were Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Count Basie, and Sonny Blount (aka Sun Ra), all of whom successfully remained contemporary through vast stylistic shifts in the history of jazz, from before swing until well after bebop. Indeed Ellington captured her well when stating that,“Mary Lou Williams is perpetually contemporary.”

Williams came to prominence in the late ‘20s and ‘30s as the principal composer-arranger and pianist for Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, enhancing her reputation by contributing to the big band books of Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey and, later, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. She became an early champion of bebop, adapting its modern harmonies and rhythms to her blues and boogie rooted piano style. In the ‘50s she had a spiritual crisis that led her to abandon music for about three years; she became a Roman Catholic. Her religious conversion had more than personal results. She began to compose in a sacred vein.This yielded a small masterpiece in 1964 with her hymn in honor of St. Martin de Porres called Black Christ of the Andes. She also composed three complete masses including "Music for Peace" later known as Mary Lou's Mass.

"No one would record me. So I decided to record myself."



In 1964, Mary founded Mary Records to release her own self-produced album "Black Christ of the Andes." This was not the first record company owned and controlled by an African American musical artist. There had been Dizzy Gillespie with Dee Gee and, importantly, Charles Mingus with Debut. Mary Lou Williams also released "Music for Peace" (later "Mary Lou's Mass") and "Zoning", as well as four 45rpm recordings on Mary Records. Activity on the label, however, ceased by 1975. Williams also founded her own publishing company, Cecilia Music Co., for the same purposes and is one of the very few African American, and particularly African American women artists of her time, to have done so.

In 2005, was Mary Records was revived by Mary Lou’s former manager and close friend, Rev. Peter O’Brien, to continue the project begun more that forty years ago. Also established around this time was The Mary Lou Williams Collective, an arm of The Mary Lou Williams Foundation, Inc., which was devoted to the recording and performance,of the music of Mary Lou Williams. Led by late pianist and composer, Geri Allen, the collective was involved in presenting fresh approaches to her own works which she herself recorded in her lifetime. It was also intent on recording her compositions which have never before been heard on disc. In 2006, the collective recorded Zodiac Suite Revisited and in 2010, The Complete Sacred Works of Mary Lou Williams was recorded in honor of the centenary of her birth.

Mary Lou Williams returned to the Jazz world fully in 1970 and remained there for the rest of her life. She appeared in concert and at workshops in colleges, at jazz festivals, in clubs, on recordings, on radio and television. In her last four years she maintained a full professional schedule of appearances while functioning as Artist in Residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. To this day, she remains one of the most historically significant and influential women in jazz.

In the final year of her life, she formed The Mary Lou Williams Foundation.

Written by Rev. Father Peter O’Brien. First paragraph by George Kanzler, All About Jazz.