The Little Piano Girl

Special Collections recently welcomed Courtney Weikle-Mills’ ENGLIT 1635: Children in Pittsburgh. Students had an opportunity to learn about collections that focus on contemporary Pittsburgh cultural organizations and Pittsburgh-based authors.  Curators and Librarians highlighted the Fred E. and Harriet R. Curtis Theatre Collection, the Nietz Old Textbook Collection, and the Elizabeth Nesbitt Children’s Literature Collection and students were asked to submit a Tumblr post about the materials.

The Little Piano Girl: the Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend by Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald, recounts the childhood of a gender defying musical prodigy.  Duke Ellington said of Mary, “Mary’s music retains a standard of quality that is timeless. She is like soul on soul.”

The story opens with the family moving from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, in hopes of bettering their lives through the war time steel boom.  Young Mary had demonstrated an early genius for the organ, at the age of three she could repeat songs she had heard only once.  In Pittsburgh, however, she had no access to an organ or a piano (until a happy accident sometime later).  She was also socially isolated, certainly for racial reasons—Mary was African American—but Ingalls and Macdonald indicate that there was distrust and or dislike of newcomers.  Children also teased her for her poverty.

Once Mary had access to a piano, first through a kindly neighbor and eventually of her own.  She made money playing, repeating any song she had heard, and eventually translating the sounds of her world and the rhythms of her neighborhood into her own tunes.

Her playing was expressive and emotive, and her passion never diminished. She toured the world for over 60 years, collaborating with other jazz legends and expanding the traditional role of women in jazz music, from only players to vocalists and composers as well.

-Alexa Tignall, Sophomore, University of Pittsburgh