Mary Lou Williams was born in Atlanta, Georgia on May 10, 1910 and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A prodigy, she taught herself to play the piano at the age of four. Williams could hear a piece of music and play it back. She played her first public performance at the age of six and became a professional musician in her teens.
Williams was one of the few black women jazz pianists, composers, and arrangers to achieve prominence during the swing and bebop eras. She wrote and arranged for most of the great big bands and artists including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Dizzy Gillespie. She performed her composition, the Zodiac Suite (1945), with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. She taught at Duke University as an artist-in-residence. In 1983, Duke University established the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.