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Mary Lou Williams

@ National Portrait Gallery


Mary Lou Williams began playing the piano at an early age, and by the time she reached her teens, she was performing on the road. Although many jazz musicians disliked working with female musicians, Williams persevered. As part of the Clouds of Joy Orchestra in the 1930s, she was billed as "The Lady Who Swings the Band," and she supplied arrangements to such top musicians as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. An early convert to the bebop revolution of the 1940s, Williams also composed symphonic jazz. She retired briefly from her music career in the 1950s, converting to Catholicism and using profits from her record company to support her work helping troubled musicians. Religious themes inspired much of her later work, including the "Music for Peace" mass, which Alvin Ailey choreographed as "Mary Lou's Mass" in 1971.
Gelatin Silver Print
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
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National Portrait Gallery

Record Harvested From

Smithsonian Institution