Jazz Girl: A Novel of Mary Lou Williams and Her Early Life

Written by Sarah Bruce Kelly
Review by Laura Staley

Mary Lou Williams was poor, black, and born to an alcoholic and abusive single mother. She was unfashionably dark-skinned, stuttered, and had frightening visions and premonitions that sometimes came true.

But Mary also had a talent for music that would make her one of the rare female jazz musicians to thrive in the early- to mid-20th century United States. Before she was fifteen, she would play with such jazz greats as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.

Born in Atlanta in 1910, Mary moved with her family to Pittsburgh in 1922. Jazz Girl follows her life for the next few years as she sharpens her skills by playing the piano at school, in gambling houses, bordellos, funeral parlors, and the drawing rooms of society matrons. Slowly she began to become known in Pittsburgh as “the little piano girl” and acknowledged as the prodigy she was.

On one level, this is a story of how talent is nourished by not just by hard work but also through love and support. On another level it’s an engaging story of a young girl growing up in difficult circumstances, experiencing prejudice, praise, and first love. Recommended.