Building Rhythm Together for Christ's Love

December 14, 2019

Thinking About Jazz   1-3pm

(free event: light lunch served,

door prizes, great discussion)

Mary Lou Williams:

1st Lady of Jazz Keyboard

Presented by Ellen Carter

As the second of 11 children, she was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs on May 8, 1910 in Atlanta.  She grew up in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh as a child prodigy who learned piano at age 3 and began playing publicly at age 7 as “The Little Piano Girl.”  She became a professional musician in her teens and took the name of her husband, saxophonist John Williams at age 16.  At age 12 she went on the Orpheum Circuit; the following year played with Duke Ellington in his early small band, the Washingtonians. 

With husband John, she moved to Memphis where he assembled a band, then to Oklahoma City then Kansas City where she began composing and arranging for his band.  In 1930 on a trip to Chicago she began recording to widespread acclaim.  Now “Mary Lou,” her records sold well and she became a nationally known artist.  She worked freelance as an arranger for Earl Hines, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.  In the early 40’s she returned to Pittsburgh joined by bandmate Harold Baker with whom she formed a band.  When he took an offer with the Ellington orchestra she joined them in New York then Baltimore where they married.  With Ellington she arranged several major tunes. 

She went back to New York and took a job at Café Society Downtown where she did a weekly radio show Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop and began mentoring younger bebop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.  In 1952 she went to England to play and stayed in Europe 2 years. 

After returning she took a hiatus from performing and converted to Roman Catholicism; she threw her energies into the Bel Canto Foundation, an effort she began to help addicted musicians return to performing.  She returned to playing herself with Dizzy’s band at Newport in 1957.  In the 60’s her friend Father Peter O’Brien became her manager; she opened new venues, played colleges, started a recording label, organized the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival and appeared on TV numerous times.  Her composing during this time focused on sacred music, hymns and masses; she worked hard with youth choirs to perform her works. 

She established a charitable organization and put thrift stores in Harlem, all proceeds plus a 10th of her own income toward assisting musicians in need.  Throughout the 70’s her career flourished with numerous recordings, speaking, teaching and commenting on the history of jazz.  Her last years were spent largely in N. Carolina at Duke as artist-in-residence; she remained active before her death in 1981. 


Other 2019 TAJ Events

February 23th
Jamil Nasser:  Upright Bass

April 27th
Billy Eckstine:  Mr. B

 June 29th
Lee Morgan:  I Called Him Morgan

August 31st
Jelly Roll Morton:  Jazz’s First Arranger

October 26th
Oscar Peterson:  The Will to Swing

December 4th

Mary Lou Williams:  1st Lady of Jazz Keyboard

Thinking About Jazz is a public service brought to you by Southwest Renaissance Development Corporation (SRDC)--a cultural ministry arm of Westminster DC. 

This free educational experience happens every other month from 1-3pm  on the 4th Saturday (except December).  Each one focuses on a different giant or genre of jazz and features vintage video footage and select audio recordings delivered by experts in the subject matter.

The material along with Q & A allows participants to go deeper into the history, stories and power of the art form and those who have created it.

Light refreshments are served and door prizes are given.

  • Rev. Brian Hamilton, President
  • Lloyd Jordan, Chair
  • Dick Smith, Jazz Night Program Director

Marilyn Abraham, James Besley, Yolanda R. Coleman, Vyllorya Evans, Gwen Fleming, Wilma Goldstein, Sue K. Gresham, Blanche Hamilton, Alicia Hetzner, Donald Roe, Tangela Roe, Brenda Wilder, Von Deleah Williams
The Thinking About Jazz Committee
holds a planning meeting the last Saturday of January, March, May, July, Sept, Nov, 10am to noon at Westminster.  You are invited to join this committee!  Check the calendar for the next meeting.  You will enjoy your welcome to the committee and the opportunity to be part of planning another great Thinking About Jazz event.