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Black History Month


Musician jazzed up her career at early age

The ''Little Piano Girl'' of Pittsburgh, Mary Lou Williams grew up to become one of the most important jazz musicians and composers of all time.

She was born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1910. When her mother practiced on an old-fashioned pump organ, she sat in her lap. One day, 3-year-old Williams put her hands on the keyboard and played a melody. After that, her mother made sure she was exposed to all kinds of music.

Williams moved to Pittsburgh when she was about 5. Word soon spread of this musical child.

She was asked to play at the homes of some of Pittsburgh's wealthiest families, such as the Mellons and the Olivers. She also played with famous jazz musicians who came to Pittsburgh.

Williams went on the road as a performer at age 15. Later, she settled in Kansas City, where there was a lively jazz scene. She also began to write music, and her compositions quickly became a popular part of the music the bands would play.

She moved to New York City in 1941, where she performed and hosted her own weekly radio show called ''The Mary Lou Williams Piano Workshop.''

She continued to compose music during that time, including her famous ''Zodiac Suite.''

In the mid-1950s, Williams became a Catholic. Her religion became a new source of inspiration for her music. She wrote a composition commissioned by the Vatican called ''Music for Peace.''

In 1975, more than 3,000 people attended a performance of ''Mary Lou's Mass'' at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. It was the first time a jazz Mass had been celebrated there.

Helping people understand jazz music was always important to Williams. In 1977, she began teaching at Duke University in North Carolina.

She continued to share the power of jazz at schools and performance halls all over the world until her death in 1981.

-- By Debra Alward

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