Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band

About This Episode


Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981), an innovative and prolific jazz pianist, composer and arranger, created some of the most sophisticated big-band hits for Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and other popular orchestras of the 1930s. From child prodigy and "Boogie-Woogie Queen" to groundbreaking composer and musical mentor to some of jazz's greatest musicians, Williams seemed to redefine herself with every passing decade. Away from the piano, she defied expectations - as a woman in a "man's world," as a black person in a whites-only society, and as a non-conforming creative genius in an image-driven industry.

Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band examines Williams' life and career, and her enduring legacy. In telling her story, the film follows the trajectory of jazz through the lens of this pioneering African-American female instrumentalist. The documentary unfolds through Williams' words - voiced by actress Alfre Woodard - taken from unpublished manuscripts, oral histories and media interviews. Actor Delroy Lindo voices Mary Lou Williams' husband John, while actor Wendell Pierce portrays bandleader Andy Kirk. Interviews with scholars, friends and fellow musicians - including Geri Allen, Carmen Lundy, Hank Jones, Billy Taylor, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Esperanza Spalding - place Williams' personal story within a larger context.