“The greatest woman jazz pianist in captivity.” “The greatest woman jazz pianist in the world.” “Highly acclaimed as a deluxe tickler of the ivories.” “One of the foremost swing pianists of either sex.” By 1936, then-25-year-old Mary Lou Williams’ reputation already preceded her. The pianist’s primary gig — Kansas City band Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy — was taking off, booked for packed dances around the country alongside artists like Louis Armstrong. Williams was the group’s marquee attraction, a little for the novelty of a woman pianist but mostly because of her undeniable artistry.
But Williams’ remarkable, prescient playing with the Clouds of Joy was only part of the explanation for her and the band’s success. Her arrangements for the group, which she’d started contributing at age 19, helped spark their national breakthrough — and gave her a role even more unusual than “woman pianist.” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” with Williams’ arrangement, had become “the biggest song of 1936” according to one Virginia paper; as a result, she got calls from bandleaders including Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington for fresh versions of the hits of the day, as well as her own compositions.
The comparatively unglamorous work of arranging — essentially, designing each band member’s parts so they fit together, and coming up with new spins on familiar pieces — might not seem like one of Williams’ most noteworthy endeavors, given her unmatched history as a player and composer. But too often women’s contributions to music, particularly jazz, are diminished by the assumption that they’re intuitive and thus unintentional — an assumption that’s clearly incorrect, but perhaps nowhere more baldly than in the fact that a woman was doing the intellectual work of writing arrangements for some of the swing era’s most beloved bands.
The sheer breadth of her work is tough to track down since many of her arrangements were never recorded, and many have been lost. But if she was even partly as prolific as she says she was, Williams had an indelible impact on the sound of the swing era’s dance bands, becoming increasingly bold with her arrangements and compositions with each new success. Regarding her work with the Clouds of Joy, the Pittsburgh Courier noted that she was “responsible for many of the unusual arrangements used by the band in playing their hit numbers”.
Part of her success lay in her ability to translate jazz sounds — the mild dissonances that come from playing between notes on the Western scale, and the subtle lope of swing — onto the page, and thus into a variety of different big bands. “One of the difficulties about jazz is that it’s very hard to notate it, but Duke Ellington could and so could Mary,” said former Metronome editor Barry Ulanov. “She had discovered, because of her particular genius, a way to articulate on paper a jazz pattern—how to accent a measure. And that’s why her best stuff is among the best in jazz.”
Whether or not they were observing that level of detail, swing fans embraced their new star. “Miss Williams is considered swing music’s only top arranger, a field she takes to with much alacrity because she likes the work,” wrote the New York Amsterdam News in a 1938 feature entitled “Miss Mary Swings For You” (a gendered qualifier might be missing, but 80 years later it seems fair to take it as it’s written).
The response to her work was certainly gendered, and the fact that she was a woman did inspire some resentment from her less-celebrated bandmates. But none of that changed the fact that by the conclusion of her time with Kirk in 1942, Williams was among the most renowned arrangers in the business, at a moment when arrangers had disproportionate sway. The peak of the swing era meant dancers were seeking out the hottest bands — “hottest,” meaning the ones giving the country’s most popular melodies ever-more-thrilling twists and turns. A 1937 Variety piece called “Importance Of Arrangers” (the subhed: “Overshadow Composers in Many Cases, Responsible for Dancemen’s Musical Reputations In Others”) listed 52 men and one woman: Williams. When an L.A. Times columnist nominated his own “All-American Swing Band” the same year, it was Williams whom he named first as his arranger of choice.