Influential Women #15: Mary Lou Williams

The first woman I will write about in 2018, is Mary Lou Williams, born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs. I came across her in a Buzzfeed post I can’t seem to find back, and was instantly intrigued. Not only because Buzzfeed made her seem like a total badass, but also because she was one of the first women to be ranked along the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Exactly 37 years to this day was the last time she played the piano, at the age of 71, but she changed the music world significantly before that.

What specifically struck me about Mary Lou Williams after reading up on her (here, here and here), was that she refused to be pinned down to one genre. Her music was popular for several decades – from the late twenties to the late seventies – which meant a lot of changes happened regarding popular music genres. From Dixieland to be-bop to swing, Mary Lou adjusted to them all. Despite that, the latter seemed to be the foundation of most of her songs, for she managed to go through all kinds of different genres while still managing to have a basis of swing in all of her songs.

What made Mary Lou special, though, besides the fact that she was one of the first women to make a name for herself within the jazz-world, she was also one of the first women to become a jazzmentor. Mary Lou was known for leaving the door to her apartment open to anyone who wanted to practice jazz or learn about it. She mentored many soon-to-be jazz legends, among which Thelonius Monk.

And this effort towards jazz education is the biggest part of her legacy today: the Mary Lou Williams Foundation aims to offer children between 6 and 12 one-on-one training with real jazz musicians, as well as educated many more children on the specifics of jazz music. So besides the fact that Mary Lou Williams’ songs had a significant impact on the music world, she herself might have had an even bigger impact on musical education as a whole.

When I asked people what they think of when they think of a jazz musician, the image that came to mind most often were older men in fancy suits, playing music in their private library. I hope by writing this post the image that will come to mind next time will be of Mary Lou Williams – not only making top charts as a jazz musician, but also educating others in it.

  • L. Parole



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