Mary Lou Williams was not only the First Lady of jazz; she has a place at the very top echelon of the jazz pantheon.
Among her few peers in the over half-century she was active were Duke Ellington,
Benny Carter and Sonny Blount aka Sun Ra, all musicians, composers and arrangers who
successfully remained contemporary through vast stylistic shifts in the history of jazz,
from before swing until well after bebop. Indeed Ellington captured her well, calling her
"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
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 (including Sesame Street and
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood).
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.