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Born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in Atlanta in 1910, Mary Lou Williams changed her name and set forth on an amazing career in jazz as a pianist and composer, arranging for everyone from Duke Ellington to Bennie Goodman.
She began playing the piano as a child and mastered swing, blues and bebop, before adding sacred music to her repertoire after undergoing a spiritual conversion.
In a 2000 profile of Williams, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted: “Mary Lou Williams was one of the most influential women in the history of jazz, and yet other jazzwomen are far better known, including Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald — all Williams’ contemporaries and, significantly, all vocalists. Williams, on the other hand, was a pianist and composer who worked with such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman. Those men’s names are now household words, but relatively few people are familiar with the work of Mary Lou Williams.”
In 1977 she accepted an appointment at Duke University as artist-in-residence, co-teaching the history of jazz and directing the Duke Jazz Ensemble. After she died in 1981 at age 71, Duke established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.