When people speak of little girls playing back in the 1920’s, thoughts of dolls and tea parties may come to mind. However, one traveler on the road of the Great Migration was Mary Lou Williams. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1910 and came north to Pittsburgh when she was four years old. Her family moved to the East Liberty area, but she slowed determined to play her way out of her neighborhood. She was a child prodigy who played the piano so well, she was hired to play to entertain people and became something of a curiosity–the little black girl who could play.
In Soul on Soul, a biography about Mary Lou Williams, Tammy Kernodle speaks about the young Mary Lou’s talent: “The Mellons, one of the wealthiest families in Pittsburgh, also invited Mary to play for their parties, and she was paid substantial amounts of money for her services…. At a time most girls were playing dressup, Mary was doing one-nighters in Memphis, Kansas City and other parts of the Midwest…..By virtue of her talent, Mary was being saved from the life of domestic service and industrial work that had robbed her mother and so many black women of their youth.”
Some child prodigies burn out, but Mary Lou kept on going, playing and composing for Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Many have heard of these male famous men, but few may know of Williams’s history. She later moved to Harlem in the 1930’s and when she arrived she was greeted as a celebrity. She continued to have a working musician’s life through three marriages, and was considered the mother of be-bop (she had no children of her own), but few have heard of her. Why?
She received a few laurels by the time she died in 1981. Late in life, she had undergone a religious conversion to Roman Catholicism and established a charity foundation in her name. This talented woman’s life story puts me much in the mind of Mozart, even though she lived twice as long as he did. Yet, she remains obscure. As I continue this special series about music in Pittsburgh to the end of the year, I would ask: have you learned about someone obscure in history and wondered why they remained that way?