A black and white photo of Mary Lou Williams playing the piano
Centennial Spotlights

Mary Lou Williams

Listening to Mary Lou Williams on the piano will make you fall in love with jazz. Learning about her life will help you understand how important she was in bringing change to Duke in the 1970s and beyond.

When Williams arrived at Duke in 1977 as the university’s first artist-in-residence and director of the jazz ensemble, she was already a giant figure in the jazz world, a mentor to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and a pioneer who carved out a role for women in jazz.

Williams’ piano playing was virtuoso and she excelled in the blues, boogie-woogie and bebop. Her performance skills were accompanied by her talent as a composer and arranger, and caught the attention of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and other band leaders.

At the end of her career, Williams came a part of the university’s effort to bolster support for the arts. Her hiring was also a signal that Duke was moving forward to welcome Black faculty and students. Williams and the jazz program became one of the focal points for Black students and culture on campus.

“She was so instrumental in helping us understanding the music and the history of it,” said Hamida Jackson-Little, one of her students at Duke. “It wasn’t just a class where you listened to music. … She was a treasure.”

Williams died in 1981, but two years later, Duke established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture in her name. For generations of students over the past 40 years, “The Lou” has been a cornerstone of their Duke experience. “The center has served as a place of reflection and where you can always find support from Duke community members,” said Desmond Gatling, an alumnus and current Durham and Community Affairs program coordinator.

Ernie Watts plays the saxophone with the house band during Jazz at the Mary Lou