playing around Pittsburgh in her early teens as Mary Lou Burley (her stepfathers surname) before leaving town with Seymour and Jeanette, a vaudeville act, at the age of 15 in 1925. That same year she joined a carnival band run by John Williams, whom she subsequently married at the age of 16. The couple moved to Memphis and joined Terrence Holder’s band, which subsequently metamorphosed in Andy Kirk’s band when the ex-sax player joined in 1929 and took the group over. William stuck with Kirk, being promoted in 1930 to first-choice pianist and a key supplier of material and arrangements to the band, especially as they had now begun a recording career. Throughout the 1930s Williams became the fountainhead of the Andy Kirk band’s original sound, material, and image as well as supplying fine freelance arrangements to many of the emergent swing bands, Benny Goodman’s included. The longevity of much of the Kirk band’s material on record is chiefly down to Williams’s outstanding work, which includes the song bearing the famous title, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”
In 1942 she left the band and formed her own small group, which at one time featured the young drummer Art Blakey. Now settled in New York, she had divorced Williams and married Harold “Shorty” Baker, who in the 1940s became a member of Duke Ellington’s band. For Ellington she wrote the superb “Trumpets No End,” a reworking of “Blue Skies,” in 1946, while also continuing to concentrate on her own material, which at that time included the long-term composition of her Zodiac Suite, portions of which were premiered in a Town Hall concert. In the mid- 1940s Williams was also an assiduous supporter of the young bop artist, contributing charts to Dizzy Gillespie’s band as well as hiring young boppers for her own units. The influence was also felt in reverse, as she updated her own previously swing-based style in the face of the innovations of Monk and Powell. Williams had a quiet time of it in the late 1940s and moved to Europe for the first half of the 1950s; by the time she returned to the US she had begun to be involved in religious activities. One of the highlights of the 1950s for her was the performance of her Zodiac Suite at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival by the Dizzy Gillespie big band: the performance was taped by Norman Granz and subsequently released on LP, and it has recently been reissued on CD. By the end of the 1950s, Williams was a long way off the pace of the music, but had turned her attention to its history and its preservations, giving many concerts, demonstrations, talks and lectures on the development of a great many jazz styles and mannerisms, especially those which applied to the piano.
She continued to become further immersed in her religious practice, although this did not curtail her activities right into the 1970s. In 1979 she embarked on a brave venture, playing a season of duets with Cecil Taylor, some of which were recorded and released on the Pablo Label. Two years before that she had been appointed to the teaching staff of Duke University in North Carolina. She taught and played until shortly before her death, in 1981, by then easily the most honored and decorated female instrumentalist and a major figure in her own right in jazz history.